Facing our Housing and Water Challenges with Smart Planning

“Water should be a core planning theme if we are to be effective in addressing the needs of communities in today’s world.”
– American Planning Association Water Task Force

It’s no secret that California has an extremely complex water system, and is also facing tremendous stressors to our water system due to climate change and increasing development pressure. In 2015, following a five-year drought, California experienced its lowest snowpack in 500 years. The drought then ended in 2016-17 with the second-wettest year on record, followed by another dry, below-average precipitation year in 2018, according to the Department of Water Resources.

The roller-coaster fluctuations in California’s annual precipitation make the 2019 water year difficult to anticipate, but NOAA has predicted “a warmer, wetter winter in California.”

At the same time, virtually every community in California is facing a housing crisis. How and where we develop will have long-lasting impacts on our water use and supply.

Smart planning is critical to the resilience of California’s future, and smart planning requires integrating water management with land-use planning.

New Governor, New Opportunities

Now is the time to get it right. With the approaching gubernatorial election, attention is turned toward priorities for the next administration. State and local agencies, NGOs and engaged community members all have a part to play to ensure that priorities, such as addressing the affordable-housing crisis, must also support responsible stewardship of our water and land resources. They can do so through four key actions:

  • Incentivize cross-sector, coordinated planning and management of land use, water management, flood mitigation and climate adaptation.
  • Ensure state investments are directed toward “multisolving” that simultaneously addresses multiple problems through groundwater-recharge and green-infrastructure projects developed at local scales with robust community engagement.
  • Prioritize infrastructure investments in existing areas, especially underserved communities, rather than growing in undeveloped areas.
  • Support more robust growth projections and coordinated planning for both land-use planning and water-management agencies.

California Communities Already Making a Difference

Fresno’s General Plan Preserves Land for Natural Groundwater Recharge

The City of Fresno has depended on groundwater for about 88% of its water supply, but demand has been drastically outpacing natural recharge. Groundwater levels there have dropped 100 feet over the past 100 years. The City is taking aggressive, proactive steps to reverse its groundwater depletion and shore up a reliable water supply.

For the first time in history, Fresno’s General Plan and development code limits the expansion of growth to undeveloped areas, redirecting it to existing developed areas. The City’s policies incentivize infill development and establish minimum (rather than maximum) densities. These policies are projected to slow expansion of the city’s sphere of influence and protect lands currently available for natural recharge for an additional 25 years.

The City is also collaborating with other agencies – the Fresno Irrigation District, Fresno Metro Flood Control District, and the City of Clovis – to invest in infrastructure upgrades that will enable agencies to use one-another’s canals to transfer water for recharge.

Building Partnerships for Groundwater Recharge Net Metering in Pajaro Valley

Recharge Net MeteringThe University of California-Santa Cruz, the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency and the Resource Conservation District of Santa Cruz County joined forces to incentivize local landowners to build a managed aquifer recharge (MAR) system on their property.

University researchers mapped the lands in the district to identify the sites with the best possible hydrologic and geologic conditions to absorb stormwater and recharge the aquifer. The Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency provided rebates to landowners to offset the cost of installing and operating necessary MAR infrastructure.

Now, some property owners are being offered a reduction in the water district’s groundwater pumping fees proportional to the volume of water they have recharged on their property. This partnership is building trust within the community, removing economic barriers to participation, and providing economic incentives for good stewardship of shared resources.

Cities Create Partnerships to Solve a Water Crisis in Silicon Valley

Soon after the historically low-income community of East Palo Alto incorporated, they faced significant water supply challenges. Despite having one of the lowest per-capita water-consumption rates (58 gallons per day) in the state, the city could not guarantee enough water for new projects, and had to issue a moratorium on development.

For a one-time $5 million fee, the City of Mountain View transferred 1 million gallons of their water daily to East Palo Alto. East Palo Alto city officials then struck a deal with Palo Alto to collaborate on two transportation projects and a water transfer agreement of half a million gallons a day from Palo Alto’s water allocation. Because the water deal was part of multiple cooperative projects, the City of Palo Alto required no compensation for the water.

By creating these unique and co-beneficial projects with their neighbors, East Palo Alto can now move forward with the sustainable growth envisioned in their General Plan.

“Growing Water Smart” by Bringing Water and Land-Use Professionals Together

A new program developed in partnership between the Sonoran Institute and the Lincoln institute is providing an opportunity for water managers and land use planners to align their policies and work together on integrated projects through a series of facilitated activities and technical assistance. The Growing Water Smart program has been hugely successful in Colorado, and is now expanding to Arizona. This is a viable model for California and other states to improve integrated planning.

Immediate Next Steps

Water and LandCross-sector and inter-jurisdictional collaboration is happening, and community leaders can help advance water and land use integration further within their own communities for a more resilient future for all Californians with these next steps:

  • Take initiative to start the conversation. Local leaders should start regular conversations and ad hoc meetings with their counterparts in other departments, agencies or jurisdictions.
  • Prioritize infrastructure investments that support existing communities. Investing infrastructure and development dollars in existing communities, rather than developing new communities.
  • Implement “multisolving” through stormwater green-infrastructure projects. Collaborative projects between multiple agencies and/or departments will yield the best results for their communities, and can solve multiple problems with one solution.
  • Leverage the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. Groundwater Sustainability Agencies, cities and counties should coordinate planning efforts with the metropolitan boundaries, commute-sheds and Local Agency Formation Commissions of the communities relying on the basin’s groundwater.


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