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A Vulnerability Framework for Assessing the Risks to Water Supply Systems Under Climate Uncertainty in the Urban Northeastern United States

The northeastern United States is not commonly considered a drought prone region. Yet there are increasing pressures on water utilities throughout the region that constrain their ability to supply reliable water. These include new constraints on water withdrawals and requirements to release additional water for ecological purposes. Finally, there is the emerging concern associated with climate change. The vulnerability of any particular system, however, is not easily assessed, as it is dependent on a variety of factors that go beyond simple changes in precipitation and temperature. These include the size of the watershed, the volume of storage, required releases, and water demand. This dissertation will develop a pragmatic framework that incorporates these factors to allow rapid assessment and comparative analysis of water utilities’ vulnerability to climate change. The analysis uses a vulnerability-based assessment, based on stress testing, which identifies the problematic scenarios first and then uses climate information to provide context regarding the risk associated with those scenarios. The approach is demonstrated in an analysis of the major cities of the Northeast U.S., New York City, NY, Boston, MA, Springfield, MA, Hartford, CT, and Providence, RI. Next, a generic version of the framework is implemented in a novel online software tool designed for smaller utilities that may lack the ability to conduct a full vulnerability analysis. Lastly, this work explores the impact of various sources of uncertainty (i.e., internal variability, mean climate change, and future emission scenario) on water supply in the northeastern United States. The dissertation shows pragmatic approaches to climate change vulnerability analysis that water utilities can implement and update to assess and manage their climate change risks for both large and small utilities.
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