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Predicting the Unpredictable: How Data-Based Forecasting Helped One Town Prepare for Climate Change

An update to a free-to-use tool from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency seeks to make it easier for local government to prepare for a changing future.

In Camden, N.J., there is a direct link between the ability of local government to use predictive modeling and whether a child’s route to school will include stepping through diluted human waste.

And it’s far from the only U.S. city with that problem.

That’s because Camden’s water infrastructure, like in some 860 other cities in the U.S., was built during a time when the hot trend in urban architecture was the combined sewer — a system where storm water mixes directly with sewage. It was popular up until the point when the automobile exploded into U.S. life and cities paved their streets, putting a waterproof cap on top of their land. The result was an unexpected inundation of water into the sewer system, and an unfortunate tendency for that mixture to seep up into the streets during torrential downpours.

“It’s a public health problem,” said Andrew Kricun, executive director of Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority. “But it’s also a social justice issue and an environmental issue.”

In Camden, the particular problem with the system has to do with the Delaware River. The river, which separates the city from Philadelphia, is the place where excess material from the combined sewage system escapes. If the river rises above the sewer opening, that’s when it has no place to go but back up into the streets.

And because it’s a river with a direct link to the ocean, the problem is only going to get worse in coming years. The warming of the planet is set to raise the oceans in the coming century, both because increasing temperatures will expand the Earth’s water and because polar ice will melt into the sea. Kricun said forecasting data suggests that the river will rise a foot and a half by 2050.

All this for a city that's already struggling. Of the 77,000 people living in Camden, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that nearly 40 percent are living below poverty level — more than three times the average for the rest of the state. Data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation painted the city as the most dangerous in the country as recently as 2014. Budget deficits have forced the city in recent years to defund its police department and library system, turning to the county for help when it could.

In other words, the city hasn’t been in a great position to address long-term problems, especially those murky clouds that climate change is threatening to bring in the future.

Which is why a free-to-use forecasting tool turned out to be an indispensable resource for Kricun. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Climate Resilience Evaluation and Awareness Tool (CREAT) brings together all kinds of data — historical weather patterns, climate change predictions and more — to give users several scenarios they might be faced with as the planet warms up.

In a guided, uncomplicated process, the tool collects information from users about their utility’s assets, location, customers and problems, and gives them tailored reports about what they might expect in the future. It also offers potential solutions. It's worked for Camden, where the Delaware River’s rise threatens to muck up the streets, and it's worked for Las Vegas, where chronic rainfall shortages are shrinking the amount of water available in the Lake Mead reservoir.

This summer, the EPA released the third version of the tool. The update switched the program from downloadable software to a Web-hosted application and incorporated the newest forecasting methodologies.

For Kricun, CREAT helped to take vague concerns about the future and bring them into sharp focus. It put numbers behind the message; it laid a timeline down on top of the planning process. It made it easier to talk to the people who hold the purse strings.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘Well, look at this climate change problem. I think the river’s gonna rise soon, we should probably do something about it,’ and saying, ‘Here’s a certified EPA model that says the river’s going to rise by this much,’” Kricun said.

In Camden, rebuilding the entire sewer system wasn’t much of an option. So instead, Kricun and other government workers have taken a partnership-based approach to reducing the amount of stormwater pouring into the gutters. For about the past five years, Kricun and others have worked with local conservation groups and Rutgers University to add substantial green infrastructure throughout the city — basically, plant-covered ground that sucks up water, filters it and slows its movement. The efforts have yielded some 50 rain gardens and are also adding to the city’s park space. That includes two completed waterfront parks and two more on the way.

One of them in particular was a double win for the city — one of the parks sits on a five-acre site that used to be home to an abandoned factory sitting on contaminated soil. In addition to the project removing contaminants from the soil, it also created a space that captures 5 million gallons of water per year and gives the community new access to the waterfront.

All told, Kricun estimates that the projects keep about 100 million gallons of storm water out of the sewers each year. That saves the utility money because it’s water that it no longer has to pump or treat. It’s also only about 10 to 15 percent of the amount of water the city wants to capture.

The other thing CREAT did was give Camden access to best practices around the country. For example, the tool connected the city with California’s East Bay Municipal Utility District and its sludge digester. Following the district’s lead, Camden is working toward installing a system that takes solid waste, converts it into gas and, in the process, turns a turbine that generates electricity. That, plus solar panels, will be able to provide up to 70 percent of the utility’s power needs — which means it will be able to continue running even if the power goes out. That’s been a big issue in New Jersey ever since lengthy power outages during Hurricane Sandy underscored the vulnerabilities that critical services face during emergencies.

The tool also ties in geographic information systems, or GIS, to help users come up with local context for the forecasts. An Esri “story map” shows users the risk of sea level rise, drought and other concerns based on different scenarios, and the tool itself provides connections to various mapping resources that help to visualize baseline data.

Mapping makes sense as a tool for government trying to prepare for climate change, said Lori Armstrong, Esri’s global industry manager for atmospheric, climate, weather and water strategy.

“Climate change is a global problem, but it has a local solution,” she said.

Armstrong said GIS can be helpful outside the sphere of water utilities too. Though CREAT is meant specifically for utilities, the impacts of climate change will affect far more — public health, transportation, forestry and electric power, to name just a few.

“What has happened is there’s a new normal, and what that means is there is no normal,” she said. “Because 2015 was the hottest year yet and [the entirety of] 2016 is supposed to be even hotter.”

The idea behind it all, Kricun said, is to both address today’s problems and prevent them from becoming worse in the future. The ability to come up with a forecast, even an uncertain one, showed the city that if it didn’t pick up its feet, the next few generations of government officials might be faced with some dire situations.

“It basically caused us to accelerate our reaction,” he said.

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.