Getting Climate Smarter, thanks to American Rivers and NRDC

Two weeks ago at this time I was saying good-bye to a small group of experts who had gathered at Wingspread to discuss the ways that our country’s water infrastructure could provide solutions to some of the challenges that lie ahead, especially those tied to a changing climate. Little did I know that three days later, on Earth Day 2013, our colleagues at NRDC and American Rivers would release what may be the most comprehensive resource available to date in helping communities plan for climate change, looking through the all-important lens of water.

In the forward to the new tool, “Getting Climate Smart: A Water Preparedness Guide for State Action”, Peter Lehner and Bob Irvin, the groups’ respective leaders, state that “Too few states are moving with dispatch to prepare for the inevitable droughts, floods, and superstorms that climate change will bring, let alone the less dramatic but no less important challenges to water supply and quality, public health and environmental protection that climate change will present.” They go on to say that they hope that  by packaging “practical guidance, planning tools, case studies and information resources” all together in one easy resource, state officials will be spurred to greater action.

It absolutely should do that and more. By breaking the process down into six very succinct steps, from building initial support to implementation, it seems less daunting, even for the lonely soul who thinks that he or she is the only one in their agency who is lying awake at night worrying about a changing climate’s impact. The authors, Fay Augustyn (American Rivers) and Ben Chou (NRDC), also cleverly built in three planning tracks (basic, moderate, and robust), allowing room for a variety of budget scenarios. While they have framed their report around creating state-level plans, I think that a much broader audience will find use. Planners and activists thinking about cities large and small, counties, watersheds, or communities will appreciate the planning process and resources provided.

In addition to the step-by-step guidance through the document, the authors have assembled a “Strategy Toolbox” as well as two appendices that are easily as valuable as the primary content. The first of these, the Strategy Toolbox, which is also published as a stand-alone document, takes a number of sectors (e.g. agriculture, transportation, water resources, etc.) and drills into them to lay out a comprehensive set of strategy options and additional resources. This list is so comprehensive that the process of plan development is practically a matter of ordering from the menu rather than writing the climate plan cookbook.

As if that weren’t enough, there are three invaluable appendices. The first has examples of state commitments for planning, recognizing that some will be staff-led. But it also has boiler-plate examples of executive orders and legislation that could be very useful to staff tasked with creating these types of documents. The second appendix contains 22 pages of federal and state funding sources, divided into those most useful for planning or for implementation stages, with links of course. And then, for everything that couldn’t fit into the first 143 pages, there’s an appendix of “Additional Resources”.

For those of us who need to balance the long, hard work of building a comprehensive plan with our own impatience for change, the report also spells out “Top 10 No-Regret Strategies”. These are so good that I’m going to list them here, though they are justified and explained more fully beginning on p. 48 of the report:

  • Reduce carbon pollution to minimize future climate impacts.
  • Use green infrastructure to manage and collect stormwater and dry-weather runoff.
  • Improve urban water conservation and efficiency.
  • Improve water conservation and efficiency among commercial, industrial and institutional users.
  • Increase agricultural water efficiency and manage water-quality impacts.
  • Increase the use of reclaimed water. Increase water efficiency in energy production to save water (and fish).
  • Preserve and restore wildlife habitat for source-water and flood protection.
  • Improve land-use planning to reduce building in vulnerable areas.
  • Ensure effective emergency response and hazard mitigation planning.

The one thing I’d add to this top ten is to look to the water sector for climate mitigation. The water sector accounts for roughly 13% of U.S. energy use and carbon pollution. Minimizing water use and flows to sewage treatment facilities is an important part of reducing the sector’s contribution.But we must encourage new technologies that may allow us to turn wastewater treatment into a significant source of renewable energy, and we should encourage this as part of any comprehensive climate planning.

American Rivers and NRDC have long been leaders in thinking, writing, and advocating on climate change and water. This report builds on that legacy and leaves what I hope will be a lasting impression, an impression that is measured through the actions of communities and states all across our country.

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