Policies enabling resilience in Seattle’s water services

The European Journal of Creative Practices in Cities and Landscapes. Vol 2, no 1 (2019)
ISSN 2612-0496

Policies enabling resilience in Seattle’s water services

Laura M. InhaTampere University, Civil Engineering (Finland)
ORCID https://orcid.org/0000-0003-2030-2922

Inha is a doctoral student in Tampere University, Finland researching policies for resilient water services in developing and developed countries, and in rural and urban settings. For her degree, she spent a year as a Valle Foundation visiting scholar in the University of Washington in Seattle, USA. Inha has a master’s degree in civil engineering majoring in water and environmental engineering. She has gained seven and a half years of work experience in stormwater management consulting in Finland, and in international development in the Global Water Practice, World Bank, concentrating on water security, groundwater management, and sanitation issues mainly in India.

Jarmo J. HukkaTampere University, Civil Engineering (Finland)
ORCID https://orcid.org/0000-0002-8500-4056

Dr. Jarmo J. Hukka is an adjunct professor at Tampere University in Tampere, Finland. He has 42 years of professional experience. His research interests include water services policy, governance and management, sector reforms, privatization, services pricing, asset management, critical infrastructure protection and resilience. Dr. Hukka has authored 180 publications. He has also worked 12 years for overseas projects in the Cayman Islands, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Kosovo, and for the African Development Bank in Gambia, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.

Submitted: 2018-11-15 – Published: 2019-12-20

Abstract

The combined impact of diverse transitions, such as climate change, population growth, rapid urbanization and ageing infrastructure are expected to affect the quantity, quality, accessibility and affordability of water globally. Water demand and competition for water are likely to increase. Addressing these changes and hazards requires societies to be resilient, i.e. flexible and adaptive instead of only resistant. Seattle, Washington USA, has a long history of sustainable development and adaptation to changes and hazards such as population growth, water pollution, droughts and floods. Based on a literature review and semi-structured interviews among twelve selected local water professionals, this paper a) defines development steps and policies that have led to the current situation; b) explores key policies that are important to the resilience of Seattle’s water services; and c) examines challenges in and recommendations for improving resilience in the future. The results reveal the importance of specific policies and practices in enabling resilience for each water service: water supply, wastewater and stormwater. They also reveal governance levels where resilience is most powerfully implemented. The paper concludes that policies that were found to build and improve the resilience of Seattle’s water services are diverse and most effective when implemented at a local level. In advancing resilience, it is important to acknowledge also informal rules, including mindsets and habits.

Keywords: water supply; wastewater; stormwater; water services management; water resilience.

Acknowledgements

For their personal support and participation, we wish to thank Professor Faisal Hossain, University of Washington, USA; Adjunct Professor Tapio S. Katko, Tampere University, Finland; and the interviewees: King County Wastewater Treatment Division Capital Project Manager Sonia-Lynn Abenojar; Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) former Director of Climate Change Resilience Team and Microsoft Water Program Manager Paul Fleming; University of Washington Senior Instructor and Director of the Institute for Hazards Mitigation Planning and Research Robert Freitag; SPU former Managing Director Diana Gale; SPU Drinking Water Planning Manager Joan Kersnar; SPU Division Director of Drainage & Wastewater System Management Rosa Ann Lopez; SPU Division Director of Drainage & Wastewater Planning and Program Management Ben Marré; SPU former Senior Strategic Advisor and Principle of CollinsWoerman Steve Moddemeyer; SPU Director of Risk and Quality Assurance Guillemette Regan; Land of Sky Regional Council Regional Planner and Affiliate Professor of the Department of Urban Design and Planning, University of Washington Mary Roderick; SPU Climate Science Advisor James Rufo-Hill; and National Center for Atmospheric Research Project Scientist Julie Vano.

For financial support, we wish to thank The University of Washington Valle Scholarship and Scandinavian Exchange Program, The Ella and Georg Ehrnrooth Foundation, The Finnish Science Foundation for Technology and Economics Tutkijat Maailmalle Scholarship Program, and The Otto A. Malm Foundation.

1 Introduction

The United Nations and the World Economic Forum, among others, have listed water as one of the most crucial issues in the future.1 The availability and quality of water and water services are affected by diverse coinciding transitions, such as climate change, population growth, rapid urbanization and ageing water infrastructure. These multiple developments are expected to intensify water demand and competition for water,2 and can threaten physical water infrastructure, such as water networks and treatment facilities, and their operation.3

Responding to the above-mentioned transitions, scholars have introduced the concept of resilience, which, in brief means an ability to resist, adapt to and recover from disturbances.4 However, the majority of the existing research discusses water resilience in terms of technical aspects and there has been relatively little research on the institutional, policy, and governance aspects,5 even though scholars and practitioners have recognized the importance of policies of water resilience.6 Additionally, according to a search in Scopus database7, water services – i.e. water supply, wastewater, and stormwater – have been researched less than water resources.

To help address these research gaps, we focus on the resilience of water services from the policy point of view in the case of Seattle, Washington, in the USA. We chose Seattle mainly because of (i) its long history in developing its water services management in a more sustainable direction, (ii) its location and climate, which cause a variety of challenges, and (iii) its current efforts in developing resilience. To provide the reader a sufficient backdrop for the research, the following section (1.1) presents an overview of Seattle’s water services and their challenges.

Our objective for this paper is to identify the type of policies local water professionals consider important for building and enhancing resilience in water services in Seattle. In addition, we are interested in discovering not only the challenges that water professionals see as hindering water resilience, but also what could be done to avoid and to respond to those challenges. Furthermore, the study determines the governance levels at which resilience is most powerfully implemented. Our research methodology is explained in more detail in section 3.

An analysis of the development of water services management policies through a lens of resilience is useful to policy makers in Seattle. It should clarify the most fundamental elements that contribute to resilient policy design and water services management. Policy makers and water professionals can consider these elements, combined with the envisioned challenges and suggestions, in future planning.

1.1 Background – water services and their challenges in Seattle

Since at least the late-19th century, Seattleites have developed their water services as a response to various societal, institutional and environmental changes and needs. For example, in 1889, the Great Seattle Fire forced the rebuilding of the entire downtown sector, including the water infrastructure, and in 1896, the Klondike gold discovery in Canada led to the rapid growth of Seattle’s population, thereby increasing water demand, and triggering massive water engineering projects in mountainous terrain.

The construction of the initial water infrastructure, which lasted for decades, has been described as “taming nature”8. It was more a matter of conquering nature than adapting to it, but the infrastructure forms the foundation for the more resilient and sustainable water services in Seattle today. Another part of that foundation is Seattleites’ responses to some unintended consequences and environmental changes. Worsening surface water quality between the 1940s and 1960s generated water quality research, environmental awareness, and regulation. To cope with water scarcity during several droughts, water conservation was successfully implemented by using awareness campaigns and increased water pricing since 1980s, and thus in 2015 the water demand decreased to the level of the 1950s. (Figure 1).

With an active citizenry and community-based politics, Seattle has been one of the leading cities in sustainability since the 1980’s, and has even branded itself Metronatural™, a city in harmony with nature.9 Our interview results in section 4.1 reveal the most fundamental development steps, creative practices, and policies that have led to the present moment. Some of these socio-economic and environmental impacts alongside selected development steps of water services are presented in Figure 2.

Fig. 1 Seattle region annual water demand in millions of gallons per day (MGD) and population growth 1930-2016. From Seattle Public Utilities, “Volume 1 – 2019 Water System Plan,” Figure 2-3. Population Growth and Water Consumption from SPU Sources, p. 2-9.
Fig. 1 Seattle region annual water demand in millions of gallons per day (MGD) and population growth 1930-2016. From Seattle Public Utilities, “Volume 1 – 2019 Water System Plan,” Figure 2-3. Population Growth and Water Consumption from SPU Sources, p. 2-9.
Fig. 2 Selected socio-economic and environmental impacts and development steps of Seattle's water services, 1870-2018. Compiled by the authors from Karvonen, “Metronatural™: Inventing and Reworking Urban Nature in Seattle.” and Ott, “City of Seattle adopts plan to build a combined sewer system, to handle sewage and stormwater, on November 30, 1891.”
Fig. 2 Selected socio-economic and environmental impacts and development steps of Seattle's water services, 1870-2018. Compiled by the authors from Karvonen, “Metronatural™: Inventing and Reworking Urban Nature in Seattle.” and Ott, “City of Seattle adopts plan to build a combined sewer system, to handle sewage and stormwater, on November 30, 1891.”

The present-day water services in Seattle are managed by a city department, Seattle Public Utilities, and a county agency, King County Department of Natural Resources, Wastewater Treatment Division. Their responsibilities include providing clean drinking water, collecting and treating wastewater, and managing stormwater for 1.4 million people in the greater Seattle metropolitan region of King County and parts of southern Snohomish County.10

Seattle’s water supply and wildlife rely mainly on two reservoirs in Cedar River and Tolt River watersheds owned by Seattle Public Utilities (Figure 3). Since the reservoirs depend on precipitation and snowpack and hold enough storage for approximately one water cycle year, climate change is a considerable stressor for the region. In the City of Seattle, there is one large regional wastewater treatment plant and four combined sewer overflow (CSO) treatment facilities.11 Stormwater in Seattle is conveyed partly combined with sewage and partly in separated sewer systems, but increasingly, green stormwater infrastructure is used (Figure 4).12

A challenge to the sewer systems are the increasing rainfall intensities, which are expected to add to urban and tidal flooding, as well as to sea level rise, resulting in, for example, increased combined sewer overflows and water quality issues in local water bodies13. Additionally, assessing the magnitude of the change is challenging, especially concerning precipitation. Seattle’s complex geography increases uncertainty and variability in future scenarios, making planning more difficult.14

Fig. 3 Seattle regional water supply system. From Seattle Public Utilities, “Volume 1 - 2019 Water System Plan” Figure 1-1. Seattle Regional Water Supply System, p. 1-3.
Fig. 3 Seattle regional water supply system. From Seattle Public Utilities, “Volume 1 - 2019 Water System Plan” Figure 1-1. Seattle Regional Water Supply System, p. 1-3.
Fig. 4 Seattle sewer service areas. From Seattle Public Utilities, “Stormwater Management”, map of Sewer Service Area. Accessed September 10, 2019 at http://www.seattle.gov/util/cs/groups/public/@spu/@usm/documents/webcontent/02_008214.pdf.
Fig. 4 Seattle sewer service areas. From Seattle Public Utilities, “Stormwater Management”, map of Sewer Service Area. Accessed September 10, 2019 at http://www.seattle.gov/util/cs/groups/public/@spu/@usm/documents/webcontent/02_008214.pdf.

Other great risks for Seattle are posed by earthquakes, which require seismic hazards to be addressed in infrastructure. In addition, ageing water infrastructure requires renewing, which brings the prioritization of water investments and the affordability of water into question. In 2015, the combined price of water, sewer and stormwater in Seattle was the second most expensive among the thirty major cities in the United States. Yet, compared to many European countries, water prices in the United States remain low.15

Along with the increasing population, the city faces pressure to densify already built-up areas. Seattle has the fastest population growth rate –18.7 percent from 2010 to 2017 – among the fifty largest US cities.16 Additionally, Seattle’s ageing and retiring workforce holds the risk of reduced numbers of professionals working in the water sector and a loss of institutional memory, knowledge, and skill.17

To respond to the transitions and challenges, Seattle Public Utilities aims for long-term sustainability and excellent, affordable service.18 To achieve its goals, Seattle already has policies, plans and programs in place, for example the Seattle Public Utilities’ Risk and Resiliency Assessment and Framework, which describes the efforts Seattle is planning to improve its resilience.19

In section 4.2, we present which current policies are the most important for resilience according to the interviewed water sector professionals. In section 4.3, we present professionals’ own views on the challenges hindering resilient development as well as their suggestions on how to respond to those challenges. In the following section, we define resilience and other relevant frameworks.

2 Conceptual framework

The main conceptual framework of this paper is resilience. While there are many definitions of resilience, we chose two that ensure sufficient broadness and include consideration of temporal aspects. First, we define resilience for water services according to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction as “the ability of a system, community or society exposed to hazards to resist, absorb, accommodate to and recover from the efforts of a hazard in a timely and efficient manner.”20 We borrow the second definition from Ofwat, the economic regulator of the water sector in England and Wales, which describes resilience as the ability to “anticipate trends and variability in order to maintain services for people and protect the natural environment, now and in the future.”21 These definitions were also provided for the interviewees to ensure mutual agreement about resilience.

While the definitions we selected cover different aspects of resilience, both are also vague and controversial. For example, they lack any mention of when to transition from resisting to accommodating change. Additionally, while it is important to anticipate trends, in reality it is difficult to know which scenario should guide planning. Despite the shortcomings, we still consider these definitions useful for this research.

Another important conceptual framework for this paper relates to policies, which are part of a larger framework of institutions and institutional change. According to Nobel Laureate and American economist D.C. North, “institutions are humanly devised constraints that structure political, economic and social interaction.”22 North divides institutions into informal rules, such as guidelines, norms and traditions, and formal rules, such as laws and regulations.23 Policies consist of changes in formal institutions, but the outcomes, according to Mantzavinos, North, and Shariq, are results of changes in both formal and informal rules.24 The institutional change does not happen at once but evolves incrementally, connecting the past with the present and the future.25 In the next section, we introduce the methodology of this study and discuss research limitations.

3 Methods

The research methods used in this paper are a literature review, policy analysis, and semi-structured interviews. The interviews were individually conducted in 2018 with twelve selected water professionals familiar with water services and resilience in the Seattle area. These methods have been used in similar research studying long-term decisions and their importance in water services management26,27 and future challenges for water services28.

The literature review, policy analysis, and the structured part of the interviews provide an overview of the development of water services and highlight the importance of certain decisions and policies, which further understanding of different elements involved in building resilience. The open-ended interview questions allowed the interviewees to freely express their insights on the challenges in improving resilience and provide suggestions for how to overcome those challenges. Asking open-ended questions allowed us to explore informal rules, rather than only policies, which are considered formal rules.

To respond to our research questions, five interview questions were devised drawing on similar research on the importance of long-term decisions and future challenges. The first two questions concentrated on current policies: interviewees were asked about the relevance of the selected policies and asked to rank the five most fundamental current policies enabling resilience in Seattle’s water services. The lists of selected policies were curated from the literature review and included only the most significant policies which enable water services and their resilience. In the third question, interviewees were asked to rank the ten most defining development steps in water services management in Seattle.

The two open-ended questions on the other hand, were intended to identify challenges in advancing resilient water services in the future and to elicit suggestions for improvement. For all five questions the interviewees were allowed to choose whether to answer questions related to water supply (eight respondents), wastewater (six respondents), and/or stormwater (eight respondents).

The results from the first three interview questions, i.e. the ranking exercises, were analyzed individually by giving each placement a set of points ranging from five or ten points for the highest-ranking policy, to one point for the lowest-ranking policy. Based on the ranking, the order of importance for the policies and development steps was revealed. Even though four interviewees ranked less than five or ten choices, and one interviewee listed more than one option as first, second and third choices, all answers were still considered in the results.

For the analysis of the last two questions, which were open-ended, we categorized all responses of both challenges and suggestions according to their content into nine broader themes: collaboration, cost, infrastructure, mindset and habits, regulation, strategy, workforce, other, and environment (only for challenges) or organizations (only for suggestions). In cases where a common challenge or suggestion was mentioned for two or for all water services, the responses were considered for both or for all water services respectively. A schematic overview of the whole analysis process for open-ended questions is illustrated in Figure 5. All results are presented in detail in section four and discussed further in section five.

Fig. 5 Schematic overview of the analysis process for open-ended questions
Fig. 5 Schematic overview of the analysis process for open-ended questions

3.1 Limitations of the research

Water services management is cross-disciplinary, that is, it connects and relates to many other sectors than just water services, hence there is a vast number of related policies, many of which overlap with the other sectors. For the purpose of this study, the policy compilations used in the interviews were not intended to be comprehensive but rather as selections of the most important policies pertaining to the resilience of water services in Seattle. The selected policies included laws, rules, regulations, programs, and plans that directly related to providing water services and water quality, as well as specific policy choices such as collaborations and a decision to purchase watershed land to secure the water source. To ensure an appropriate selection, interviewees were allowed to add policies to the list.

We acknowledge that ranking the importance of policies can be subjective. Policies often create chains of dependencies where one policy requires action, and another responds to it. Therefore, at times it can be challenging to choose whether the key policy is an important program or the law enforcing it. To address this limitation, we selected a knowledgeable and diverse group of interviewees. Based on the similarity of responses in our individually conducted interviews, we assume that the group of twelve interviewees was representative enough. In another similar research setting, the Finnish civil engineers Tapio Katko and Pekka Pietilä, and environmental historian Petri Juuti used thirteen respondents.29 Expanding the group may result in slight changes to the ranking of the results.

4 Results

This section presents the results from the interviews. We begin with the results of ranking the importance of past development steps (section 4.1), advancing then to the importance of present policies (section 4.2). Finally, we present the future-oriented results from the open-ended questions about challenges in advancing the resilience of water services in Seattle and suggestions for improvement (section 4.3).

4.1 Past key development steps enabling resilience

This section answers the first research question about the development steps and policies that have led to the current situation. Based on respondents’ choices of relevant issues found in literature and policy analysis, Figures 6-8 illustrate the importance of specific policies and practices for the development of resilient water services in Seattle. The results for each water service are discussed at the end of section 4.1 and further in section 5.

Fig. 6 Importance of past water supply-related policies to the development of resilience in Seattle, based on respondents’ choices of relevant issues found in literature and policy analysis.
Fig. 6 Importance of past water supply-related policies to the development of resilience in Seattle, based on respondents’ choices of relevant issues found in literature and policy analysis.
Fig. 7 Importance of past wastewater-related policies to the development of resilience in Seattle, based on respondents’ choices of relevant issues found in literature and policy analysis.
Fig. 7 Importance of past wastewater-related policies to the development of resilience in Seattle, based on respondents’ choices of relevant issues found in literature and policy analysis.
Fig. 8 Importance of past stormwater-related policies to the development of resilience in Seattle, based on respondents’ choices of relevant issues found in literature and policy analysis.
Fig. 8 Importance of past stormwater-related policies to the development of resilience in Seattle, based on respondents’ choices of relevant issues found in literature and policy analysis.

For water supply, over half of the 22 development steps that interviewees found fundamental for resilience deal with securing the water source in terms of water quality and quantity (Figure 6). Steps to securing the quantity of water include the purchase of watershed land and water conservation programs. The establishment of water testing laboratories and water treatment facilities on the other hand are important steps to ensure good water quality. Other important development steps involve development of the water infrastructure and its management. The results highlight the fundamental basics of resilient water supply: safe and available water, accessible to its users.

For wastewater, on the other hand, the two most important policies relate to the development of legislation and regulation: the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System, NPDES, and Clean Water Act in 1972 (Fig. 7). Similar to water supply, the development of the infrastructure and its management are also important for achieving resilience in wastewater services. Most of the 22 policies that interviewees considered fundamental for resilient wastewater services relate to improving water quality, indicating its importance not only to human health but also to the environment.

The steps interviewees found most significant for resilience in stormwater management included the decision to discontinue building combined sewer and stormwater lines, which reduced sewage overflows to the environment during heavy rains. Another was the adoption of a stormwater fee to finance stormwater management; this fee financed many of green stormwater infrastructure projects (Figure 8). Plans and programs in the ranking, such as green infrastructure and drainage plans, reflect the importance of sustainable stormwater management practices in the existing cityscape.

4.2 Importance of key current policies for resilient water services

This section answers the second research question, concerning which policies are most important for the resilience of Seattle’s water services. Based on respondents’ choices of relevant issues found in literature and policy analysis, Figures 9-11 illustrate current policies that are the most fundamental in enabling resilience for Seattle’s water services. The order of importance provides an indication to policy makers and other officials about, for example, where to target funding, time and effort to maintain and improve resilience. The results for each water service are discussed at the end of section 4.2 and further in section 5.

Fig. 9 Importance of current water supply-related policies to resilience in Seattle, based on respondents’ choices of relevant issues found in literature and policy analysis.
Fig. 9 Importance of current water supply-related policies to resilience in Seattle, based on respondents’ choices of relevant issues found in literature and policy analysis.