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    Distribution of survey response locations.

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    Five Americas for Community Water and Climate Change.

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    A comparison of two audience segmentation analysis: Six Americas for Climate Change vs Five Americas for Climate Change and Community Water.

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    The percentage of water utility professionals using climate change information (x axis) as part of a wide range of business processes (y axis): never, (gray bars), today (orange color bars), and over the next 5-yr period (blue bars).

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    Water utility professionals want to support the appropriate gathering, usage, and sharing of uncertain climate information in community understanding and preparedness to extreme events.

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    Water professionals’ self-identified need for additional education/support materials to share with external decision makers (including Governing Board members and community and regional planners and decision makers), the implications of using highly uncertain climate information in comprehensive water supply planning.

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The Opportunities and Needs of Water Utility Professionals as Community Climate–Water Leaders

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  • 1 Corona Environmental Consulting, Louisville, Colorado
  • | 2 Water Research Foundation, Denver, Colorado
  • | 3 University Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado
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Community water is a key place Americans will personally experience climate change. A 2013 nationally representative survey found that 92% of Americans want their community water provider to be a leader in preparing their community for climate change, and that community water providers are highly trusted sources for climate information. These findings place water utility professionals on the front line of climate response. A 2016 follow-up survey asked approximately 250 water professionals if and where they are using climate projection and assessment information, what analytic techniques they use where climate information is an input, what are their primary climate information sources, and whether they have the education and support materials needed to gather, use, and share climate information in complex decision making across job responsibilities and with external audiences. Survey findings include that over half of respondents are using climate projection and assessment information today and almost a quarter more will be using it in the next 5 years; use occurs in a wide range of job responsibilities; over 70% of respondents want to be a leader/team player in applying or sharing climate information; and over half of respondents self-identify the need for additional educational, training, and support materials. The survey findings provide a data-based contribution to understanding the opportunities and needs of water professionals as they prepare their communities for changes in the climate and water.

Denotes content that is immediately available upon publication as open access.

© 2018 American Meteorological Society. For information regarding reuse of this content and general copyright information, consult the AMS Copyright Policy (www.ametsoc.org/PUBSReuseLicenses).

Corresponding author: Karen Raucher, kraucher@coronaenv.com

Community water is a key place Americans will personally experience climate change. A 2013 nationally representative survey found that 92% of Americans want their community water provider to be a leader in preparing their community for climate change, and that community water providers are highly trusted sources for climate information. These findings place water utility professionals on the front line of climate response. A 2016 follow-up survey asked approximately 250 water professionals if and where they are using climate projection and assessment information, what analytic techniques they use where climate information is an input, what are their primary climate information sources, and whether they have the education and support materials needed to gather, use, and share climate information in complex decision making across job responsibilities and with external audiences. Survey findings include that over half of respondents are using climate projection and assessment information today and almost a quarter more will be using it in the next 5 years; use occurs in a wide range of job responsibilities; over 70% of respondents want to be a leader/team player in applying or sharing climate information; and over half of respondents self-identify the need for additional educational, training, and support materials. The survey findings provide a data-based contribution to understanding the opportunities and needs of water professionals as they prepare their communities for changes in the climate and water.

Denotes content that is immediately available upon publication as open access.

© 2018 American Meteorological Society. For information regarding reuse of this content and general copyright information, consult the AMS Copyright Policy (www.ametsoc.org/PUBSReuseLicenses).

Corresponding author: Karen Raucher, kraucher@coronaenv.com

1. Introduction

Community water supplies across much of the United States are highly vulnerable to adverse impacts from climate change (IPCC 2014). Impacts on community water are one of the primary ways Americans will personally experience the implications of climate change, including increased threats to source water quality, the supply of available water, and critical water infrastructure (National Climate Assessment 2014).

As stewards of an essential service, water utility professionals are already at the table for community planning and extreme event preparedness. They are trusted sources by mayors, city councils, and local and state planning agencies for information regarding water and extreme events. They are, therefore, in a critical position to help prepare their communities for climate change.

In response to large climate uncertainty—coupled with the uncertainty facing water utilities from economic and demographic changes, shifts in technology and land use planning, and the expense, longevity, and often irreversible nature of long-term water utility adaptation options—many water planning professionals are adopting new analytic tools and techniques (Raucher et al. 2015). To support the use of climate information as an input to new analytic approaches, water professionals also need to understand how to gather, use, and share highly uncertain climate projection and assessment information (Ambani and Percy 2014). Without this knowledge, they have limited their cognitive ability to develop adaptive or robust climate response plans and build community support for implementing prudent resiliency measures to new kinds of extreme events (e.g., changes in extreme precipitation—drought or flooding—and event magnitude, frequency, and severity).

This research examines two critical issues related to the use of community water professionals as local climate–water leaders. First, we explore the American public’s attitudes and beliefs with respect to the nexus of climate change with community water, and the perception in the American mind of the role local water providers need to play in preparing their community for climate change. Second, we examine the willingness and educational needs of water utility professionals as they move into using scientifically complex and highly uncertain climate information.

2. Methods

a. Assessing public attitudes about climate change and community water

In 2013, the research team conducted a survey to identify how large segments of Americans think about the nexus of community water and climate change (Raucher et al. 2014).

The survey was implemented using a GfK Group Internet KnowledgePanel (http://www.gfk.com/products-a-z/us/knowledgepanel-united-states/) that provided a statistically significant representative sample of households from across the United States, with a margin of error plus or minus 3%. Survey responses were used in a latent class analysis with variables representing audience actions, beliefs, and values around climate change and community water. The survey asked questions designed to elicit respondents attitudes, actions, beliefs, and values in order to identify segments of the population that are likely to want and respond to similar types of information (McDonald and Dunbar 2004; Maibach et al. 2011).

The survey included the 15-item section developed and fielded by team member Anthony Leiserowitz as part of the Yale Program for Climate Change Communication ongoing series of Six Americas for Climate Change surveys and reports (Leiserowitz et al. 2017). In addition to the questions focused on climate change, the survey included a series of questions that examine American attitudes, actions, beliefs, and values regarding the following:

  • trust in water utilities,
  • support for inclusion of climate change information in water planning,
  • concern for extreme weather impacts on community water, and
  • willingness to pay more each month for their community water provider to begin preparing for the impacts of climate change on community water in 10–40 years.
Findings from the survey presented the research community with two critical questions:
  • Are water professionals interested in using and providing leadership in the appropriate use of climate information in internal and community decision making?
  • Are water professionals qualified to provide their communities with climate-water leadership?

A second survey was designed and implemented to address these questions.

b. Assessing water professionals’ attitudes and use of climate information

A survey of water professionals was conducted in November and December of 2016 to address the follow-on research questions as well as the following:

  • their use of uncertain climate information (i.e., if, where, and how they are actively selecting and applying uncertain climate information),
  • their climate information sources,
  • their analytical techniques and approaches in which climate information is being used as an input,
  • their understanding of the implications of using information with unprecedented layers of uncertainty in decision making,
  • their willingness to provide leadership in understanding how to gather, use and share uncertain climate information, and
  • their need for additional trainings, education, and support materials in order to provide community and regional leadership.
Input on survey questions was received from Water Research Foundation professionals as well as professionals from the American Water Works Association, the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies, staff from several large water utilities, and the Water Utility Climate Alliance. Invitations to participate in the Survey Monkey hosted survey were sent out to Water Research Foundation members, Water Utility Climate Alliance members, the Colorado River Water Users Association members (as part of their annual conference program), and colleagues of utility and other team members. Approximately 250 water resource professionals completed the survey. Although not designed to be a statistically significant representation, the survey provides useful insights from a broad representation of water professionals from across the nation (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1.
Fig. 1.

Distribution of survey response locations.

Citation: Weather, Climate, and Society 10, 1; 10.1175/WCAS-D-17-0061.1

The full set of questions used in both surveys can be found in Raucher and Raucher (2017), and Raucher et al. (2014).

3. Results

Based on empirical research in Raucher et al. (2014), we find there is a high level of trust and a nearly universal desire on the part of Americans to have their community water suppliers play a leadership role in preparing their community for climate change.

One of the most startling findings from the 2013 survey is that 92% of Americans want their community water provider to be a leader in preparing their community for climate change: only 8% want their utility to play “no role at all,” while over three-quarters (77%) want their utility to play a very large (13%), large (27%), or moderate (37%) role. A related important finding is that community water providers are a relatively highly trusted source for climate information by 88% of Americans.

We also find, from the 2016 survey, that professionals across a broad range of job responsibilities—from general manager and finance officer to demand management, treatment operations, and resource and infrastructure planning team members—are interested in taking on important roles in preparing their systems for climate change. However, these groups also express a need for additional training, education, and support materials to help them gather, apply, and share highly uncertain climate change information appropriately.

a. Audience segmentation analysis: Five Americas for community water and climate change

The Latent Class Gold cluster algorithm identified five large groups of American audiences (Fig. 2) that are likely to respond to climate/community water messages in distinct manners (Maibach et al. 2011). Defining attributes of each group include the following:

  • Advocates, representing one-fifth (~20%) of Americans, understand the climate change human attribution connection (98%). They believe that water agencies need to pay a “great deal” of attention (71%) or “some” attention (27%) to climate change in planning for the future, and 84% of Advocates are willing to pay more now in order for water agencies to be prepared for the impacts of climate change in 10–40 years.
  • Supporters, representing 44% of Americans, have less confidence in why the climate is changing; only 57% believe in human attribution while 39% believe climate change is a natural change in the environment. However, a large majority, 86% of this group, still believes that water agencies need to pay a great deal of attention (36%) or some attention (50%) to climate change in planning for the future. 81% of Supporters are willing to pay more today to ensure their community is prepared for the future impacts of climate change.
  • Skeptical Supports are a relatively small group, less than one-sixth of the population (13%), but it is interesting to note that this group has the highest percentage of respondents (88%) that are willing to pay more today to ensure their water supplier is preparing for the impacts of climate change. They are willing to pay in spite of the fact that three-quarters (75%) of this group are uncertain about climate change: 43% do not know if climate change is happening, 19% are somewhat sure the climate is not changing, and 13% are very sure it is not changing.
  • Closed Wallets, a relatively small group (15%), are defined by the group’s almost universal (93%) unwillingness to pay extra for any water utility action.
  • Pessimists are the smallest group, with less than a tenth of the population (8%). 86% of this group do not believe the climate is changing, with the same portion, 86%, selecting “Other” as their response to why the climate is changing. This group believes (82%) that their community water supplier should not pay much attention to climate change in planning. Close to a third of this group (31%) do not think there is much a water provider can do to protect the local water supply from extreme weather. However, this is the only group likely to attend a water utility meeting.
Fig. 2.
Fig. 2.

Five Americas for Community Water and Climate Change.

Citation: Weather, Climate, and Society 10, 1; 10.1175/WCAS-D-17-0061.1

b. Comparison of Six Americas for Global Warming with Five Americas for Community Water and Climate Change

Because the survey instrument included questions from the Six Americas for Global Warming survey (Leiserowitz et al. 2017), it is possible to examine how the clusters of the two groups of audience segments overlap (Fig. 3) and examine the differences that occur in the American climate change conversation when community water is included.

Fig. 3.
Fig. 3.

A comparison of two audience segmentation analysis: Six Americas for Climate Change vs Five Americas for Climate Change and Community Water.

Citation: Weather, Climate, and Society 10, 1; 10.1175/WCAS-D-17-0061.1

The two most extreme segments of the Six Americas for Global Warming, the Alarmed and the Dismissive groups, have high levels of overlap with those in the two extreme groups from the Five Americas for Community Water and Climate Change segments: the Advocates and the Pessimists. However, the three middle segments of the Five Americas for Community Water and Climate Change—the Supporters, Closed Wallets, and Skeptical Supporters, representing over three-quarters of Americans—each have overlaps with five or even six of the Six Americas for Climate Change segments. These data illustrate the power of the concept of community water to shift Americans’ climate change conversation.

c. Climate change information is widely used by water resource professionals

Ninety percent of surveyed water professionals in the 2016 research (Raucher and Raucher 2017) are using either climate projection or climate assessment information today (69%) or are considering using this information in the near future (21%). The approximately 10% of respondents who indicated they are not using or considering using climate projections in the near future most often stated that the information was not applicable to their organization (37%), that impacts would not occur within their agencies’ planning horizon (19%), or that the implications would not be significant enough to warrant additional understanding (23%).

d. Federal agencies are the primary source for information

More than 70% of respondents indicate they gather information from NOAA, and close to 60% of respondents use information gathered from the United States Bureau of Reclamation and/or the United States Geological Survey. More than 40% of respondents use information gathered from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and colleges and universities. Thirty percent use information gathered from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and regional and state climate information centers (e.g., California State climate information centers).

e. Climate change information is used across the broad spectrum of water utility functional areas and in a wide range of action areas

Water professionals are using, or considering using, climate projection or assessment information in a broad range of utility functions, including supply planning, demand forecasting, and extreme event preparedness planning. Climate assessment information also is being incorporated into the broader spectrum of water utility functions and responsibilities, from regulatory compliance to capital improvement plans (CIPs), and from rates and finance to customer engagement and public outreach (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4.
Fig. 4.

The percentage of water utility professionals using climate change information (x axis) as part of a wide range of business processes (y axis): never, (gray bars), today (orange color bars), and over the next 5-yr period (blue bars).

Citation: Weather, Climate, and Society 10, 1; 10.1175/WCAS-D-17-0061.1

f. Climate change information is used as an input in a wide range of analytic tools and approaches

Water professionals are using climate projection information and assessment information in a broad range of analytic tools. The most broadly used analytic tools include vulnerability and risk analysis (73%), scenario analysis (70%), and cost/benefit and business case analysis (58%).

g. Utility professionals want to be climate information leaders and team players

Almost four-fifths of all respondents (70%–80%) indicated they want to be a leader or team player in the gathering, use, and sharing of uncertain climate information, both within their agencies and with the community. Figure 5 illustrates how over 50% of respondents want to play a team role while between 22% and 28% of respondents want to provide leadership in ensuring the appropriate use of uncertain information internally (28%), the implications of the use of highly uncertain information within the utility (25%), supporting community extreme event (EE) preparedness (21%), and developing a culture of climate-water leadership (24%). This indicates significant water professional support for the use of uncertain climate projection and assessment information.

Fig. 5.
Fig. 5.

Water utility professionals want to support the appropriate gathering, usage, and sharing of uncertain climate information in community understanding and preparedness to extreme events.

Citation: Weather, Climate, and Society 10, 1; 10.1175/WCAS-D-17-0061.1

h. Water professionals strongly want training and support on how to gather, apply, and communicate uncertain climate change information

Water professionals self-report that they lack the education, training, and support needed to provide leadership and team support (Fig. 6). More than two-thirds (69%) of respondents indicated that they personally lack the depth of understanding and education needed to work successfully with highly uncertain information, 59% indicated they lack the depth of understanding and education needed to communicate effectively, 69% indicated they lack the depth of understanding and education needed to increase understanding within the utility, and almost 80% indicated they lack the depth of understanding and education needed to increase understanding in external audiences. In addition, three-quarters of respondents indicated they have a high-level need for research and resource agencies like the Water Research Foundation, EPA, NOAA, and FEMA to provide training and educational materials targeted to increase water professional understanding of how to handle uncertainty.

Fig. 6.
Fig. 6.

Water professionals’ self-identified need for additional education/support materials to share with external decision makers (including Governing Board members and community and regional planners and decision makers), the implications of using highly uncertain climate information in comprehensive water supply planning.

Citation: Weather, Climate, and Society 10, 1; 10.1175/WCAS-D-17-0061.1

4. Discussion

New communication strategies are needed to support the ability of water professionals to directly address the attributes of climate change that create unique communication challenges, including the fundamental change represented by planning for plausible rather than probable outcomes, enormous scientific complexity, and political divisiveness that creates silence (Council on Climate Preparedness and Resilience 2016; Lowell 2011). Communication strategies need to dive deeply into how to successfully address our inherent mental biases and traps when presented with statistics, data, and uncertainty (Kahneman et al. 1982) and when we feel emotionally at risk (Covello et al. 2011) (and if we do not have the knowledge needed to support our convictions, we feel at risk). Water resource professionals also need new kinds of interactive tools that allow them to understand the plausible long-term public safety implications of making decisions with attributes they have not previously faced.

The Water Utility Climate Alliance, Corona Environmental Consulting, Abt Associates, RAND, and the University Center for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) currently are building a training course for water utility professionals, focused on climate change and water supply planning. Additional funding is needed to turn this one-time opportunity into a large-scale, pragmatic research program that addresses the needs of emergency response planners as well those ensuring the quantity, quality, and long-term resiliency of community water supplies.

Additional research needs include implementing a statistically representative survey of water sector professionals to confirm the findings from the 250 person sample; implementing an updated nationally representative Community Water and Climate Change survey to confirm findings and identify changes over time; conducting a rigorous survey of training participants to evaluate the usefulness and gaps of the initial training; developing, testing, and modifying the communication portion of the initial training; and building our understanding of the specific climate integration support material needs by water utility business process.

Perhaps the greatest need is an opportunity to provide training to as many water resource professionals as possible, including water utility professionals, community and regional emergency planning agencies, and members of the water regulatory and permitting community.

5. Conclusions

The American public wants their community water provider to play a leadership role in preparing their community for climate change impacts and implications. Water professionals are in position and want to provide leadership and team support for the appropriate gathering, use, and sharing of uncertain climate information, both within the utility and the community. Many water professionals want and need additional training and support in the use of uncertain climate information in decision making. Additional research is needed to test initial training offerings, to target trainings for those preparing for changes in extreme precipitation patterns, and to clarify our understanding of the information and support materials community water providers need to successfully prepare their communities for the implications of changes in climate patterns and extreme events.

Acknowledgments

The authors thank all the team members on all the research projects listed, as well as the participating utility personnel and reviewers, for all their support. We also thank the Water Research Foundation for funding the surveys presented in this article as part of Project 4381, Effective Climate Change Communication for Water Utility Stakeholders, and Project 4696, Insights into the Use of Uncertain Information in the Water Utility Sector. Readers interested in more details, including the survey questions, can find them in these reports. None of the authors of this article has any real or perceived financial conflicts of interests.

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