By Maj. Justin Baird, M.SAME, USAF, Lt. Col. Patrick Suermann, Ph.D., P.E., LEED AP, M.SAME, USAF (Ret.), and Charles Wolf, D.Eng, P.E., M.SAME

A safe and reliable water supply is without compare in resource management. Disruptions in either quality or quantity can create crippling effects for the operation of cities, military bases, hospitals, businesses, and residential areas. The criticality of maintaining a consistent water supply and the importance of risk management at all levels was demonstrated recently during the February 2021 Texas winter storm. In its aftermath, more than 2,000 of the state’s approximately 7,000 public water systems had disrupted service. Many of these were required to post boil water notices, impacting over 16 million Texans.

What differentiates this event and similar disruptions was the level of preparation and deep understanding of the supply chain risks for cold weather operations. To prevent future occurrences, the water industry must develop a more extensive “expeditionary” risk management mindset. The systematic logic behind risk management has to be tailored to accommodate the full spectrum of water industry operations and the services that supply those operations to best enable water planning and management that lowers high-impact risks and addresses probability and severity.

A comparison of two elite expeditionary risk management programs—the National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) and the U.S. Air Force—can provide insights on techniques for application in the water industry.

Public water systems were widely disrupted following an extreme winter storm in Texas during February 2021. U.S. AIR FORCE PHOTO BY AIRMAN 1ST CLASS DAVID PHAFF



NASA defines risk management as a set of interrelated activities that must be continually evaluated, understood, and communicated. Moreover, risk management operates continuously in an activity, proactively risk-informing the selection of decision alternatives and then managing the risks associated with implementation of the selected alternative.

The risk management program for the agency is defined within NASA Procedural Requirements 8000.4B and is the responsibility of the Missions & Program Assessment Division under the purview of the NASA Office of Safety and Mission Assurance. The vision guiding the division is “to be a ‘yes, if ’ culture and to support missions and programs, while putting in place the right safety measures.”

The mindset of NASA risk management evolves around five distinct categories: strategic, program/project, institutional, acquisition, and enterprise. Each of these deals with the management of both known and unknown/underappreciated risks and contains two processes that form the structure for managing risk: Risk Informed Decision Making, which addresses risk with the informed selection of decision approaches to ensure approaches align with objectives; and Continuous Risk Management, which addresses risk with the selected approach to ensure a successful outcome.

Comparatively, the Air Force’s risk management program is defined within Air Force Instruction 90-802 and is the responsibility of the Occupational Safety Division under the purview of the Air Force Safety Center. The service defines risk management as “a decision-making process to systematically evaluate possible courses of action, identify risks and benefits, and determine the best courses of action for any given situation.”

The mindset of Air Force risk management leverages four principles: accept no unnecessary risk; make risk decisions at the appropriate level; integrate risk management into operations, activities, and planning at all levels; and apply the process cyclically and continuously.

The Air Force categorizes risk in two primary levels: Deliberate/Strategic (in-depth risk assessment during planning); and Real- time/Tactical (on-the-spot risk assessment during execution). A systematic decision- informing process used primarily during deliberate planning includes five steps: Identify Hazards; Assess Hazards; Develop Controls and Make Decisions; Implement Controls; and Supervise and Evaluate.

By applying an expeditionary mindset and considering low-cost, high-benefit means for avoiding catastrophic disruptions, the water industry can ensure preparedness for extreme weather. PHOTO BY SENIOR AIRMAN MIRANDA SIMPSON, USAF


What can be learned from these programs to improve water industry operations during significant stress events such as the Texas 2021 winter storm? Due to the expeditionary nature of both NASA and the Air Force, the overarching thought process behind any mission, program, or project involves an “if this, then this” mentality that considers all potential risks with plans to address them. Because of this, the organizations have a plan for all root cause risks and are prepared for worst-case scenarios with several layers of backup plans so they can execute risk mitigation at all times.

An expeditionary mindset gained through years of such experience differs from public utilities and privatized business ventures that do not operate in the same kind of environment. For local utilities, there is always a battle between appropriate use of public funds and operations that creates a limit on available funding for low-probability events. For private business, probable risks are mitigated and improbable risks are insured against. Historical analysis indicates the likelihood of a multi-day deep Texas freeze is extremely unlikely. Municipalities and private water systems were justifiably unprepared for cascading supply chain impacts such as power grid failures.

However, the key for ensuring better preparedness for extreme weather events is to implement low-cost, high-benefit means for avoiding catastrophic disruptions and damage. This is what is meant by applying an expeditionary mindset. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, along with many other organizations, is working to explore solutions that enable stable water supply within the state during extreme weather and solutions that could ultimately be applied to the water industry at large.

The water shortage was part of a larger dissemination of incidents stemming from the loss of power. Applying an expeditionary mindset provides a means to break down these major infrastructure interdependencies to their root cause failure modes and analyze strategies that enable functional independence. Amid “top-to-bottom” water operation reviews and the orchestration of many ongoing planning scenarios, the time is now to integrate NASA’s and the Air Force’s expeditionary risk management process with water planning and management, not only in Texas, but holistically across the country.

As extreme weather events increase in frequency and intensity, past approaches for risk mitigation are becoming insufficient and must evolve. PHOTO COURTESY FREESE AND NICHOLS


The water industry is core to public health and economic security. We must ask what measures shall be taken to maintain water services through additional “unprecedented” scenarios when past resiliency approaches such as dual power feeds or sources, emergency generators, and on-site potable water reservoirs are no longer sufficient. As accomplished within the NASA risk management process, performance measures must be linked to safety, mission success, cost, and schedule. Both qualitative and quantitative likelihoods could then be determined with their respective consequences.

Ultimately, incorporating risk management with an expeditionary mindset provides a path to address high-impact and highly urgent risks—such as millions without water—through holistic infrastructure planning and management.

Maj. Justin Baird, M.SAME, USAF, is Graduate Student, and Lt. Col. Patrick Suermann, Ph.D., P.E., LEED AP, M.SAME, USAF (Ret.), is Department Head, Associate Professor, Department of Construction Science, Texas A&M University. They can be reached at; and

Charles Wolf, D.Eng, P.E., M.SAME, is Principal/Vice President, Freese and Nichols;

[This article first published in the July-August 2021 issue of The Military Engineer.]