By: Albert J. Slap, ’71
On April 22, 1970, as a junior at Penn, I attended the first Earth Day celebration in Philadelphia. On a cool and breezy spring day, tens of thousands of young people gathered in Fairmont Park to listen to Senator Ed Muskie, the poet Allen Ginsberg, and other luminaries lay down a challenge to the audience. Senator Muskie said what we already knew. “No major American river is clean anymore,” he declared. “No American lake is free of pollution. No American city can boast of clean air.” Sitting high atop Belmont plateau, attendees at the first Earth Day could see the soot-choked city skyline, polluted by power plants, oil refineries, incinerators, and automobiles.
Although I was an English major, at that very point in time, I knew that I wanted to devote my career to helping make the planet cleaner, safer, and more sustainable. I did not know that environmental law would be my method of accomplishing this goal until a few years later when I took the first-ever environmental law class at Villanova Law School. The federal Clean Water Act of 1972 had not even been passed by Congress.
My first job out of law school was with the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia as head of a newly-created, Environmental Division. My first case was one of the first federal Clean Water Act citizen suits ever filed – this one against the City of Philadelphia’s Water Department over its sewage pollution of the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers and ocean dumping of sewage sludge off of Atlantic City.
The resulting consent decree forced Philadelphia to provide secondary sewage treatment to remove 86 to 90 percent of the pollutants in the sewage and exacted $2.16 million in penalties from Philadelphia for failure to meet clean up timetables. The City would pay the penalties into an environmental trust fund to be used to monitor toxic substances and heavy metals in its sewage and drinking water, thereby helping Federal officials determine which industrial polluters continued to contaminate the river.
Soon after, I became the head of the City’s environmental law programs as a Deputy City Solicitor. During the next four years, I brought numerous cases against polluters and toxic waste dumpers for the City, including the first Superfund cost-recovery lawsuit in the country, City of Philadelphia v. Stepan Chemical Co.
For 40 years, I continued to represent environmental groups against polluters. But, in 2012 I took on a case that would change the course of my career. I was asked by the Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper, now Miami Waterkeeper, to help stop sewage pollution from Miami-Dade Water and Sewer’s three sewage treatment plants. At first, I thought it was a run-of-the-mill Clean Water Act case. Once the Waterkeeper lawsuit was filed, Miami-Dade County Water and Sewer management conceded that it was violating the Clean Water Act and needed to re-invest at least a billion dollars to upgrade its plants, pump stations, pipes, and move quickly to comply with Florida State law.
But there was a catch. The three large sewage treatment plants run by the County were not sea level rise ready nor storm safe. And, with a warming climate and rising tides, the plants were becoming more vulnerable each year to disruption by extreme weather and sea-level inundation. So the legal fight became not just about stopping sewage pollution, but making the utility infrastructure climate ready and storm safe. The case was ultimately resolved favorably to the Waterkeeper and, the County committed to elevating and hardening its infrastructure, using sea-level rise models to guide design and re-construction of its plants and pump stations.
The Biscayne Bay Waterkeeper case made me realize that climate change, in particular sea-level rise, would continue to have a devastating impact on the built environment of our coasts. Something had to be done about it. So, with two of my expert witnesses from the Waterkeeper case, Dr. Leonard Berry and Dr. Brian Soden, we brainstormed about creating a technology startup company that would provide fast, accurate, and affordable environmental risk assessments (current and future) to individuals, businesses and governments. So, in late 2014, I retired from the law and formed a startup technology company, Coastal Risk Consulting, to do just that.
By mid-2016, we launched the online, software service now known as RiskFootprint™ to provide individuals, businesses, and governments with flood, natural hazard, and climate impact assessments so that they could make better risk mitigation investment decisions to become safer, more sustainable, and resilient. Over the next few years, we evolved from assessing coastal flooding to encompassing holistic environmental, natural hazards, and climate change risks for properties all across the US and select areas globally.
So, why is this article entitled, “Why Water Utilities Are Beginning to Prioritize Climate Resilience”? Here is my take. The climate is changing, causing significant problems for humans around the globe. Large water utilities are located mostly in urban areas, which support the majority of the world’s population.
As such, it’s important that cities (homes, apartments, offices, and factories), and public infrastructure (water, sewage and electric utilities, roadways, and public transit) are safe, sustainable, and resilient. All of these assets are critical to a resilient society. None can stand alone, thus becoming a “stranded asset problem.”
Individuals, businesses, and governments are all in the same “leaky boat”, where all are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Each of these stakeholder groups has independent duties and obligations to invest in risk mitigation to protect themselves and their fellow passengers on “lifeboat” Earth. Here’s the key point for utilities. Water and sewer utilities are dependent on taxes from local governments, GO bonds, and service fees, as their main sources of revenue. If residents and businesses leave an area (retreat) due to climate change, the funds available to utilities decline and their bond ratings may be lowered by rating agencies. If the interest rates that local governments or utilities must pay for borrowing money increases due to lower bond ratings, then, the utility can borrow less money to do what needs to be done to keep public infrastructure operating properly.
For businesses looking to relocate or enter a new urban market, a city’s ability to assess and mitigate climate risks to its infrastructure will be an increasingly important factor in such businesses’ decision-making. Asset level, as well as market-scale risk assessments, will be critical to such investment decisions. According to a recent report by the Urban Land Institute, “investors will better assess both the economic impact of climate-related events and the cost and ability of cities to mitigate the impact of climate change through their resilience strategies.” If commercial real estate or industry does not believe that the local government or a utility can keep the streets dry and the water/sewer/electric functioning properly, they will be less likely to invest in that area. The result will be reduced taxes and funding for water and sewer utility revenues. This new reality highlights that we really are “all in it together.” Individuals, businesses, and governments in urban areas must patch the holes in our “leaky boat” by obtaining a clear picture of climate risk and developing collective mitigation strategies to address the growing climate crises. Without collective understanding and action, the “leaky boat” we are currently in will surely sink.
Climate Risk and Real Estate, Emerging Practices for Market Assessment, Urban Land Institute, October 2020, https://urbanland.uli.org/sustainability/uli-report-how-investors-assess-climate-risk at-the-market-level/
Albert J. Slap, ’71 is President and Co-Founder of Coastal Risk Consulting, LLC, a geospatial technology, modeling, and data analytics company located in Boca Raton, FL. Prior to launching Coastal Risk, Mr. Slap was a nationally recognized, environmental trial attorney and law professor. Mr. Slap used America’s environmental laws and its legal system to protect public health and the environment by helping to stop water and air pollution, toxic waste dumping, and requiring local governments to replace aging and polluting sewer infrastructure. Mr. Slap served as a Board Member of The Nature Conservancy’s Pennsylvania Chapter and was the Director of The Nature Conservancy’s Colorado River Program. Mr. Slap was also a Board Member and General Counsel of Friends of the Everglades and in 2014 received the prestigious, Marjory Stoneman Douglas “Defender of the Everglades Award.”