Better Integrating Water and Land Use: Building the Foundation for the Future

Here at ClimatePlan, we continue to challenge ourselves to think holistically and transformatively with our present and future challenges. Because of this, we have long recognized and pushed to connect California’s transportation, land-use, housing, and climate decisions to each other, and ground these decisions in community voice. With most of the background research done for our land-use and water project in the Bay Area (spotlighted in October), we have learned how vital it is to connect water decisions to ClimatePlan’s holistic vision.

This connection is vital because the separation of water from our land-use and transportation decisions has three negative consequences:

1. The separation compounds challenges because decision makers are not considering all the benefits or consequences.
2. The separation also prevents decisionmakers from meaningful implementation of solutions to address the challenges, and thus
3. The separation leaves the most vulnerable communities unprepared for the upcoming challenges of climate change. 

Separate Authorities and the Compounding Challenges
Right now, land-use, transportation, and water authorities are separated; making decisions using different political geographies, different jargon, and different priorities. This separation incentivizes decision making that does not consider all the benefits and consequences. In the case of the Bay Area, the challenge of housing unaffordability is exacerbated by the challenges of high transportation costs; water costs add an additional burden for low income households. These challenges, in turn, increase the risk of displacement, which low income communities and people of color are facing.

Housing and TransportationWater_Blog.jpg
It is well known that transportation costs (costs of public transportation or gas money) exacerbate housing costs, and that true measures of housing affordability need to account for transportation costs. Now with COVID-19, we are seeing how water costs impact housing affordability as the pandemic forces people to stay at home, and lose their source of income. Even before the pandemic, low income communities and communities of color struggled to pay for their water, while balancing the cost of transportation and housing. But now, the pandemic is highlighting how many of those communities are struggling to comfortably meet their basic needs, because they are not able to balance the cost of water and the cost of their homes.

Displacement, where low-income communities and communities of color—specifically the black and Latino population—are pushed out of their neighborhoods and into neighborhoods that are less resourced (lower quality schools, limited access to and limited frequency of public transportation, etc.) also connects to water costs. While it isn’t clear about how much water rates exacerbate housing costs, it is clear that if people are not able to afford water and the water is shut-off, the house is legally “inhabitable and untenable”. This legal designation means that a resident can be evicted if they do not have water.

Both of these examples illustrate how the structural separation of water from housing and transportation decisions exacerbate challenges that communities face. This separation of water also creates barriers for decision makers to address these interconnected challenges.

Separate Authorities and Lack of Meaningful Implementation
In the case of the Bay Area, there has been significant progress on trying to plan holistically. However, the structural separation still creates barriers like limited time capacity and uncoordinated funding. The challenge of uncoordinated funding is further exacerbated by two laws: 1) Proposition 13, which restricts how much land-use agencies can collect in property taxes; and 2) Proposition 218, which regulates how water agencies use water rates they collect (source). Because these laws regulate how much can be collected and how money can be used, local water and land-use agencies have further limitations on funding. Therefore, local agencies have limited means to maintain infrastructure and successfully implement solutions. This will affect a local government’s ability to adapt to climate change.

Water_Blog2.jpgLimited Protection for our most vulnerable communities
Climate change will exacerbate current challenges, which will disproportionately burden the most vulnerable communities. The most vulnerable communities tend to be the most unprepared and under-resourced because of the uncoordinated funding and fragmentation in decisions described above. Specific to the Bay Area, the issue of unaffordability, without proper integration of land-use, water, climate and community decision making will be exacerbated by climate change. Climate change is reported to increase the intensity of rain, increase the variability of rain, and it will decrease snowpack. Therefore, climate change will increase the probability of drought years, and it will bring hazards, such as flooding and sea level rise. These upcoming challenges will exacerbate water unaffordability and will challenge us to rethink where and how we develop. The required infrastructure upgrades to account for flooding and droughts rely heavily on residents paying for them, because water rates will necessarily increase to fund the upgrades. This adds to the cost burden for low income and communities of color. While all utilities in the Bay Area have ways of subsidizing low income communities, they will need additional support from the state to be able to fully address the issue of water affordability. Local governments, non-profit organizations, water utilities, developers, community members, etc. have to continue to work together to ensure that our most vulnerable communities are protected. 

What we can do and ClimatePlan’s work
Clearly, these challenges are daunting, and with the additional challenge of the pandemic, it is easy to maintain the status quo. However, creating a stronger connection between water, housing, transportation, and climate is what will ultimately help us address this pandemic, and create healthy, sustainable, and more equitable communities. This is because the stronger connection will allow decision makers to begin to understand most of the benefits and consequences of a decision, it will allow the coordination of efforts, and it will coordinate funding, which increases the likelihood of implementation.

In response to this need, ClimatePlan is working on overarching principles to equitably integrate water into the regional transportation plan of the Bay Area: Plan Bay Area 2050. We want these principles to support the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s effort to integrate water, and should mitigate the challenges listed above. ClimatePlan is also creating additional recommendations that will help the region and the state as a whole, think holistically and transformatively in the regional housing needs allocation and housing element of the general plan.

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