1 Year Into the Pandemic - How We Can Use Collaborative Planning to Get out of Compounding Crises

Right now, we are one year into a global pandemic and stay-at-home orders. The data from the State Water Board is showing 1.5 million Californians are behind on their water bills; the average amount of debt per household is $500. According to the Legislative Analyst office, Californian renters owe $400 million in unpaid debt, on top of a shortfall of 220,000 of affordable homes (MTC and ABAG). Latinx, Black, and Asian households are more likely to be behind on rent and water bills than white households. A decline in ridership has led to a decrease in public investments in transportation infrastructure, which is largely used by low income communities. 

This is just the tip of the iceberg. These multiple, compounding crises further highlight the importance of collaborative infrastructure planning for healthy and sustainable communities. Current financing infrastructure relies on local governments, water agencies, and transportation agencies to fund their own operation, maintenance, and infrastructure upgrades. Local governments can rely on impact fees. However, many transportation and water agencies have few outside sources of revenue. So, they largely rely on funding from their constituents and customers in paying their utility bills, paying ridership fees, etc. 

Local governments, water agencies, transportation agencies, equity advocates, and communities that are a part of collaborative infrastructure planning, create better solutions. This is because they are able to share the costs and they get a better understanding of who is going to benefit and who is going to be burdened. Collaborative infrastructure planning can look like developing partnerships and restructuring grants to look holistically at how to plan for multi-benefit projects.

As an Americorps Fellow at ClimatePlan, I’ve completed over a year of research into the way in which water agencies, land use agencies,and transportation agencies can and already do work together. Below are the most relevant collaborations that I know of that can be used as models or case studies to encourage other agencies to work more collaboratively, especially in such trying times.

Three successful collaboration models: 

  • Regional partnerships among water agencies that work together to identify ways to share water supply and invest in regional solutions that support communities.
    • Ex: Bay Area One Water Network: a network of water, stormwater, wastewater, and other stakeholders that identify ways that water can be managed more holistically. They have recently identified the limitations and opportunities to expand stormwater management as a use of water supply.
    • Ex: Bay Integrated Regional Water Management Program; a nine-county effort to coordinate and improve water supply reliability, protect water quality, manage flood protection, maintain public health standards, protect habitat and watershed resources, and enhance the overall health of the San Francisco Bay. Their disadvantaged advantaged community program expands outreach to state identified disadvantaged communities in order to conduct needs assessments and provides funding for these projects.
    • Ex: Bay Area Regional Reliability; a partnership between the largest water suppliers that have identified ways to share water supply and regional projects of interest to individual water agencies.
  • Partnerships between environmental advocates, land-use advocates, land-use agencies, water agencies, natural resource conservation departments, and mobility advocates that work together to protect watersheds.
    • Together Bay Area: a coalition of Indigenous Tribes, nonprofits, and public agencies in the 10-county San Francisco Bay Area. 
  • Partnerships across regional agencies, that work together to find ways to equitably invest in communities to protect them from sea level rise and other impacts of climate change
    • Adapting to Rising Tides: a partnership of Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), Bay Conservation and Development Commission, Association of Bay Area Governments.
    • BayCAN - Bay Area Climate Adaptation Network: Collaborative network of local government staff and partnering organizations working to help the Bay Area region respond effectively and equitably to the impact of climate change.

While some of these collaborations and partnerships are public and well-known to constituents, it would be helpful to know how they are collaborating together and sharing information among themselves and with the public. We can learn useful lessons from each of these partnerships and collaborations, and we can also encourage these collaborations to focus on addressing affordable housing and making sure there is equitable provision of water before crisis strikes. 

Most importantly, there needs to be the protection of the most vulnerable, structurally disadvantaged, and underinvested communities. This type of protection looks like addressing the immediate short-term crisis (water and rental relief) and creating policy that provides protection on a local scale (tenant protection and preservation policies) by directing more funding to community identified projects. Once the immediate crises are handled and there is a level of stability, we need to think longer-term and bigger picture about how agencies and organizations can efficiently and effectively collaborate when crisis strikes. 

Next steps

During my time at ClimatePlan, I will continue to explore the question of whether there is a way to have infrastructure planning that balances housing goals, water management goals, and equitably distributes the benefits.

Look out for ClimatePlan’s affordability webinar for up to date information on how land-use, water agencies, and advocates are working at the intersections of many issues to start to address the multiple crises.

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