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Linking Land Use and Water Decisions

Lori Pottinger February 24, 2016
FarmBorderingSuburbs

In nature, water and land are intimately entwined. But in the human landscape, we’ve created divides. Communities across the state separate water and land use, and this can lead to inconsistency, inefficiency, and conflict. The Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) recently convened a series of workshops in rural California on aligning land and water planning for long-term sustainability. Debbie Franco is OPR’s community and rural affairs advisor and local drought liaison, and a member of the PPIC Water Policy Center’s advisory council. We talked to her about this ongoing process.

PPIC: What was the purpose of these workshops, and what common themes did you hear?

Debbie Franco: We’re seeking ways to ensure that water and land use decisions are informed by each other and ultimately are driving toward the same goal. As a first step, we organized six regional workshops in rural parts of the state to talk to folks working in water and land-use planning, with the goal of better understanding how locals see optimum alignment, where there are gaps or barriers, and opportunities to close the gaps and overcome the barriers. We logged more than a hundred ideas, and now we’re working to figure out what actions would move us toward more resilient water and land systems.

Themes that emerged included:

  • The need for strong political leadership, supported by mechanisms to help leaders balance competing priorities and to achieve equity across our various water divides;
  • Institutional drivers that lead to good choices for water and land management—such as eliminating the pressure small local governments feel to embrace development as a way to fund community services;
  • The value of using common data and metrics across land use and water planning, and focusing on measurable outcomes.

PPIC: What are the most pressing issues you heard about?

DF: The biggest idea that came up over and over was the need to have watershed-scale water accounting. The idea needs a lot more discussion and research, but basically, such a process might for example document how much water everyone gets, what water rights pertain, and where you have lands with high potential for stormwater capture or groundwater recharge. You might end up with a watershed map showing lands with high potential for storing water, where everyone benefits from ensuring they are used for that purpose. Sharing such information with land use authorities could lead to better analysis of land options for new developments. We heard from participants that California’s “show me the water” requirements and environmental review process under CEQA (the California Environmental Quality Act) happen too late, when proposed developments are far along in the planning process. If developers got water information to inform site selection, it could make it easier for them and result in water benefits, too. Some jurisdictions are already taking this approach.

Several regions discussed the potential for marijuana to be legalized, and the crop possibly shifting from the forests to conventional farmlands. There’s a huge opportunity to be forward-thinking on solving water issues that might arise from this shift.

Every workshop included a discussion about how under-resourced local government planning is. There are so many barriers—no dedicated funding source for this kind of planning, out-of-date general plans, plans trapped in litigation for years. We need sufficient resources for local governments to do good planning.

Learn more

More on this topic: “Video: Water and Growth in the West” (PPIC Blog, February 18, 2016)
Read the California Water Action Plan, which was a motivation for these meetings
Visit the PPIC Water Policy Center

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