Water: Cities' Biggest Risk?

Back in January, the World Economic Forum released its annual Global Risks Report and ranked failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation as the top risk and water crises as the third biggest risk.

This sense was reinforced by speakers and attendees at the 2016 National Planning Conference. In a survey of planners released at the conference, a whopping 80 percent of respondents listed water among the top issues confronting their community.

But rather than feeling glum about the risks of water, planners at the conference were eager to explore new approaches to confronting the issue. Attendees were challenged and energized by multiple keynotes focused on water. Opening speaker Jack Uldrich touched on the potential emergence of new technologies to help address challenges of water scarcity, safety, and "smarter" infrastructure.

NOAA Administrator Dr. Kathryn Sullivan touted new federal data tools aimed at supporting and improving local water planning. Among the highlights of Dr. Sullivan's presentation was a new water "dashboard" to help planners bring critical information about climate change and storms to residents and policymakers. Meanwhile, APA encouraged planning advocates to support efforts in Congress to expand NOAA's Digital Coast initiative.

The conference closed with oceanographer John Englander detailing the latest on the reality of sea level rise and its potential social and fiscal impacts. He issued a call for communities to begin work now on planning for rising coastal waters.

APA water policy guide

Beyond these keynotes, water was the focus of many conference sessions and conversations. Phoenix featured one of APA's most expansive tracks on water ever presented. It helped planners learn about the basics of water systems, water environments, and hydrology and outlined a broad array of policy and management approaches. Interdisciplinary approaches and partnerships were on display with training on applying economic cost-benefit analyses to water planning and related local capital budgets and programs featuring groups like the Water Research Foundation, Water Environment Research Foundation, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy / Sonoran Institute, the Association of State Flood Plain Managers and the Royal Netherlands Embassy discussing new approaches for working together on improved water management planning.

In recognition of the challenges posed by water — whether too much, too little, or too polluted — APA members convened at the conference to work on a new water policy guide.

The guide took a major step forward when APA's legislative and policy delegates approved it with suggested improvements. The central theme of the Water Policy Guide is "One Water," a management approach based on integrated water resource management — essentially a more sustainable model for managing water resources.

"One Water" was highlighted in many sessions throughout the Water Track, and this theme resonated powerfully with attendees. More work remains to be done before the guide is completed, but its authors hope it will offer a new blueprint for policymakers at all levels of government to support and encourage vital new integrated, comprehensive water planning approaches.

As the National Planning Conference came to a close, Water Week 2016 kicked off in Washington with APA participating as a partner organization.

In events held across Washington, more than 50 national organizations have been holding events aimed at drawing the attention of the public and policymakers to water issues and the need for thoughtful investment and planning for water. Recent events in Flint, Michigan, as well as upcoming legislative work on Capitol Hill to pass both new energy and water resources legislation, made the messages of advocates and experts particularly timely and important.

About the event on water management

APA and the Royal Netherlands Embassy held an event to examine how communities are adopting new approaches, including the Dutch model of living with water, to deal with the threats posed by rising tides and depleted aquifers. Case studies from New Orleans, Norfolk, and Baltimore were presented and discussed. Dale Morris, economist, and advisor at the Dutch Embassy, discussed the award-winning Greater New Orleans Water Plan and efforts to bring sustainable solutions to water planning and urban design.

Kristen Baja from Baltimore outlined her city's new All Hazard Disaster Preparedness Project and Plan. She argued the case for innovative regulation as a path leading to better and more innovative design and infrastructure solutions. She also noted the progress made in Baltimore by linking resilience plans to the development of capital improvement programs and budget decisions. All three speakers discussed the challenges and necessity of bringing an equity focus into water and resiliency planning, as well as real funding for addressing equity challenges in hazard mitigation.

The Netherlands' Special Envoy for International Water Affairs and former senior advisor to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for Hurricane Sandy recovery Henk Ovink addressed the crowd and noted the global nature of the water challenge and the enormous scale of both the assets and lives at risk. He cautioned that avoidance is not a viable strategy and that planners must play a leading role in finding solutions.

Uniting the conversations in Phoenix and Washington about water planning is the idea that innovative solutions linking infrastructure, regulatory reform, urban design, and development are being created to confront this powerful risk but much more remains to be done to integrate water and resiliency into existing government programs and structures. The politics and economics of this issue remain significant obstacles to progress. And yet, hearing inspiring stories from around the country are cause for optimism about the potential for effective planning to not only mitigate risk but also create new value.

Think of it as a sort of water planning jujitsu. Aggressive advocacy will be needed to build public support and transform the politics of water.

Image: Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan: Joining the Orleans and London Avenue canals, the Lafitte Blueway becomes an essential part of an interconnected waterway network in New Orleans, providing drainage, circulating water, and bridging between disconnected communities. Courtesy of Angela Lawson.

About the Author
Jason Jordan is APA's director of policy.

April 18, 2016

By Jason Jordan