Blog

Recovering Stronger: State Innovations - West Region: Respond, Recover, and Reimagine

Joya Banerjee and Sarah Huckins | March 24, 2021

The West, and the nation, are facing myriad challenges. Years of devastating climate impacts, like droughts, wildfires, and heat waves, have left many in the West struggling to make ends meet. This has been compounded over the last year by the COVID-19 pandemic, which laid inequities bare and highlighted how deeply embedded those inequities are. But times of upheaval can lead to lasting change. The US Water Alliance believes our country has a unique opportunity to recover stronger—and to center One Water policy as a driving force.  
 
As a part the US Water Alliance’s Recovering Stronger Initiative, and as a companion to the recently released Federal Blueprint, the Alliance set out to identify state policies and projects that are enabling the water sector to recover stronger. This project started with conversations in the West and included a survey of the Alliance network, targeted interviews, and a dialogue with 30 changemakers from California, Oregon, Washington, and Nevada to discuss innovative state policy approaches that leverage One Water practices.  
 

What We Heard: 

Water Can and Must Collaborate. Leaders throughout the water sector and beyond emphasized the importance of collaboration and the willingness of those that were once adversaries to work together. After decades of making decisions in silos, leaders are now seeing stakeholders embracing new partnerships and adopting new technologies to move projects forward. The urgency for water solutions is real, but to truly recover stronger, the water sector in the West must take the time to address agency integration, improve coordination across agencies, advance new governance models, and engage communities. 
 
Water Can and Must Adapt. While the challenges facing the region are great, participants expressed hope for a more resilient future. Amid the upheaval of the past year, One Water leaders have adapted to keep communities safe and healthy – demonstrating that the water sector can and will adapt to new conditions. Across all four states, participants shared a collective recognition that leaders need to be looking for and implementing new solutions. In the words of one participant: “We don’t want to recover by going back to where we were, but rather by going where we need to be.” Participants also emphasized the need to center equity and justice in recovery efforts and acknowledged there will be no equitable recovery without equitable access to safe, affordable, and reliable water and wastewater services. Finally, even in communities that had previously been resistant to change, leaders are adapting rapidly and demonstrating openness to new ways of operating. 
 
Water Policy and Projects Can Advance Recovery. Participants highlighted the policies and projects that have enabled them not just to respond and recover from the pandemic, but to reimagine what is possible. Polling data shows that voters share the belief that water projects and infrastructure investments are important economic recovery objectives. The examples of policy and programs that are enabling recovery efforts span the breadth of the One Water movement and can serve as inspiration for those across the country working to recover stronger. A few are listed below: 
  
Climate Adaptation and Mitigation 
  • In Nevada, Governor Sisolak issued Executive Order 2019-22 directing the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the Governor’s Office of Energy to collaborate with public, private, and tribal partners to implement Nevada’s climate goals. Emerging from this foundational effort came the Nevada State Climate Strategy. Multiple agencies developed the Strategy together, with input from more than 1,500 residents. To learn about the Strategy’s stakeholder engagement, read more here.  

  • In California, the Natural Resources Agency, the Department of Environmental Protection, the Department of Food and Agriculture, and the State Water Resources Control Board launched an interagency effort called Cutting the Green Tape. The goal of the initiative is to accelerate environmental restoration. In collaboration with the California Landscape Stewardship Network, the Natural Resources Agency developed a report to forward these efforts: Regulatory Efficiencies for the a Resilient Environment.  

  • Also in California, Governor Newsom issued Executive Order N-10-9 calling for a portfolio of actions to ensure the state’s long-term water resilience. The final product, California’s 2020 Water Resilience Portfolio, resulted from the collaboration of an interagency working group and input from more than 20 public listening sessions.
 
Affordability and Access
  • In Washington, state legislation provides utilities more flexibility in offering low-income customers a discount on their rates. Section 80.28.068 of the Revised Washington Codes states, "Expenses and lost revenues as a result of these discounts shall be included in the company's cost of service and recovered in rates to other customers."
  • Washington, Oregon, and California are all states that offer broad-based categorical eligibility (BBCE), a policy in which households may become eligible for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) because they qualify for other assistance programs. While BBCE currently is used to address food insecurity, there are ongoing conversations at the state level to develop categorical eligibility for water rate assistance programs to lower the barriers to enrollment.
 
Innovation and New Models of Partnership  
  • In Nevada, Oregon, and California, state and local agencies, as well as agricultural partners, have engaged in a project to make evapotranspiration data freely accessible. The OpenET Project strives to enable more accurate water budgets and innovative water management programs.  

  • In California, the state Department of Conservation and the California Water Data Consortium, a nonprofit organization that was developed in partnership with state agencies, are working together to align around an investment in mapping the state with LiDAR technology. LiDAR has been used to support water quality modeling and to plan major environmental restoration efforts.  

 
Water Quality  
  • In Washington, Seattle’s Duwamish Valley Program is a multi-departmental effort led by the Office of Sustainability & Environment and the Office of Planning and Community Development. The Duwamish Valley Action Team bring together 18 city departments, and with feedback from over 500 Duwamish Valley residents, developed the Duwamish Valley Action Plan, which aims to improve water quality while advancing environmental justice.  

  • In California, the Cleanup and Abatement Account was established to provide grants for the cleanup of instances of pollutions where there are no responsible parties to undertake the work. Public agencies, tribal governments, and non-profits serving a disadvantaged community are all eligible to apply for grant funding.  

 
These bright spots, among many others, provide insights that extend far beyond the West. Different stakeholders each have their own levers they can pull, but all are important in the advancement of a One Water future. State policy can enable local action, but local action also can inform state policy. Recovery efforts will require both top-down and bottom-up efforts, as well as new levels of information sharing and communication across the water sector. And a thread through all of what we heard was the need for coordination and alignment with current and future federal relief and recovery efforts. But it is important to recognize these policies and projects, while key to recovery efforts, are not a panacea. There are many challenges for which solutions have not yet been generated. But together, through collaboration and innovation, the water sector can help America recover stronger.  

What’s Next:

The West Regional Listening Session is the first of six Listening Sessions to bring together state policymakers and One Water leaders identify opportunities for action and shape recovery efforts.  
The Alliance’s Recovering Stronger Initiative aims to share and spread how different stakeholders across the country can drive recovery efforts. The Initiative seeks to reknit a local, state, and federal partnership for water. To learn more about the local, state, and federal components of transforming the nation’s water management, read more here: http://www.uswateralliance.org/initiatives/recovering-stronger