A core part of that challenge is funding. Mr. Morris said D.C. Water expected to spend $60 million over 10 years to improve storm-water pumping stations alone, as well as much higher costs for other climate-related projects. He noted that those costs would come “on top of what we’re spending just routinely to maintain older infrastructure.” And the city needs to find that money with a rate base of just 130,000 customers.
To keep up, the utility has already added a storm-water surcharge to customers’ bills, which Mr. Morris said average $108 a month. And raising those rates much higher risks straining the budgets of many city residents.
“We obviously have some customers who can pay that and may not even think twice,” he said. “But we have a great number of other customers who are on fixed incomes, or on limited incomes. And if their water bill is rising faster than their pay or their benefits, then it poses a huge challenge.”
Around the country, regulators and elected officials have been reluctant to grant rate increases to pay for climate-related upgrades, according to Shalini Vajjhala, founder of Re:Focus Partners, a design firm that works with local governments to help address the challenges of global warming. And the reason, she said, is often legitimate concern about affordability.
“Meeting current needs is hard, so focusing on future climate impacts is often completely out of reach,” Ms. Vajjhala said. “It’s like looking at someone in a leaky rowboat and talking to them about new fuel-efficient engines.”
Erik D. Olson, who runs the water and health program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said there was a psychological element to the problem, too. Cities have struggled to pay for upgrading their water systems because residents can’t see it, he said.
“Out of sight, out of mind,” Mr. Olson said. “People have not had to think about this for generations.”