Monday, March 2, 2009

Water & Wastewater Infrastructure, Supply, and Planning Study - Phase I report, part 4

The 4th Chapter of Vol. 2 of the committee report contains their recommendations for Phase II of the study, commencing later this month. This next Phase is envisioned by the committee as a transitional phase - leading to a larger regional discussion occurring in later phases of the study. For this reason, one of their first recommendations is that the existing committee complete its work on Phase II, then disband, so that a new committee with more regional representation and focus can pick up the next phases of the study. This sounds like a reasonable proposition. My suggestion would be to tie the incoming committee tackling Phase III, etc. in with a regional visioning process, as discussed in the December forum on land use planning.

This section then sets up a framework for the discussions in Phase II, outlining 3 broad areas of discussion:

1) Adaptive management - making better use of existing water supplies and drought planning
2) Comprehensive planning - matching land use planning with water resources planning, incorporating environmental uses of water in planning process, applying planning principles across jurisdictions in the area
3) Water resources and environment - development and/or acquisition of new renewable water supplies and (again) bringing the environment into the discussion of planning and water resources

As the report notes, they cribbed the term adaptive management from climate change discourse, which stresses the need to develop policies that permit adaptation to changing climate conditions. They seem to be stressing policy and regulatory strategies that will allow us to use our available water resources more efficiently, especially in the face of prolonged drought when supply options diminish. I like the fact that they address the issue of conserving for a purpose other than to permit continued growth - this is a complaint often made when people are asked to conserve - why sacrifice simply so more people can move here and impact our quality of life. The reality, as always, is far more complicated than that but it makes for a good soundbite. And it's an issue that has to be answered for more people to truly buy into the concept of conservation.

But, as they mention, the adaptation strategies discussed in this report are things many in the region are already looking at and trying to implement with varying success. I think the issue of adaptive management needs to be pretty open-ended. We may have strategies in place that will allow us to cope with shortages, or we may need an entirely new set of tools in the toolbox - adaptation includes recognizing when the existing models are not working and need to be altered or replaced.

Comprehensive planning is the monster task that lies ahead. We don't even know what it will take to do the kind of planning that is required. There are a few models out there (Envision Utah?) but we don't know how well they will work for us until we start trying things out. The issues the committee proposes to address in this context are focused on linking land use decision-making to water supply availability and guiding growth to the areas of the region best suited to accommodate that growth. I agree that land use decisions need to be made with an understanding of what is supported by available water supplies and infrastructure, but the issue of guiding growth to appropriate areas needs to be handled delicately. Mandating certain types or amounts of growth in given areas is a nice idea but always seems to result in unintended consequences and ends up being weakened by exceptions to avoid inequitable situations. Establishing policies that subtly effect the economic incentives associated with the where and the how of growth, while still not perfect, I think tends to produce more desirable results. Allow flexibility in the process and permit negotiation with developers to encourage them to think creatively in order to get their projects approved and built. This will produce quality growth in the community that hopefully should also be sustainable.

The final discussion area - Water Resources and Environment - feels to me largely a restatement of ideas covered in the two previous areas. Augmentation of water supplies fits in nicely with the regional planning approach discussed above and water for the environment was explicitly noted under issue two as a requirement for sustainable water supply planning. I think some committee members just felt really strongly about incorporating water for the environment in the discussion that they wanted it included in a discussion heading.

The format for Phase II is similar to Phase I (there will be a series of open public meetings where the committee will be presented technical information from various experts), but because the inventory aspect is over this phase will involve much more discussion of policy and less numbers, facts, and statistics. They are also planning to complete the meetings as fewer, longer sessions than occurred in Phase I. This should permit more in depth discussion of the issues involved, both among the committee members and with the public.

The meetings start in two weeks, so I'll follow up on this as they occur.

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