By Zoë Roller, Program Manager, US Water Alliance

September 21, 2018

Water sector professionals and land use planners are natural allies: both are accustomed to thinking long-term, considering resource limitations, and doing the behind-the-scenes work that keep our cities and systems running. The American Planning Association (APA)’s Water and Planning Connect conference creates a space for new collaborations and conversations to take place.
The event, held in Kansas City, Missouri last week, brought together planners and water leaders from around the country to discuss pressing issues facing our fields and the interconnections between them. US Water Alliance staff Kip Peterson and Zoë Roller attended and spoke at the conference, strengthening the Alliance’s growing partnership with APA. APA sent a delegation of professionals to One Water Summit 2018, where they made a commitment to action to “build connections between planners and water resource professionals” in the coming year. Water and Planning Connect delivered on that commitment and represents a great contribution to bringing planners into the One Water movement.
The themes that emerged from the conference represented the full range of One Water issues. With hurricane season threatening the Southeast US once again, climate change was a top of mind issue. Paul R. Brown’s opening keynote explored the paradox of planning for inherently unpredictable phenomena like extreme storms and shifting weather patterns and stressed that water systems need to become more flexible and resourceful. Subsequent sessions explored federal and local policy responses to climate change, making it clear that planners, especially at the city level, are truly on the front lines of this challenge.
A session focused on water equity highlighted the importance of considering the needs of vulnerable communities when planning for climate adaptation and infrastructure investment. In a session structured around the Alliance’s water equity framework, Alecia Kates shared some local examples of multi-benefit water strategies being implemented by the Mid-America Regional Council, Bridging the Gap, the Urban Neighborhood Initiative, and KC Water. Building on Pillar 2 of the water equity framework, these include initiatives that hire formerly incarcerated people as green infrastructure stewards, simultaneously creating green space and living wage jobs for vulnerable communities.
The intertwined challenges of aging water infrastructure and water affordability also surfaced as key concerns for utilities and communities, as neglected systems begin to break down and necessitate rate increases. Fragmentation is one culprit: there are over 50,000 different water utilities around the country, and they are further separated by political subdivisions and planning jurisdictions. This has been a hurdle to building economies of scale and implementing large-scale solutions to challenges like climate adaptation and rate affordability. Moreover, water professionals are held back by the fact that many Americans do not understand the value of water and need for investment—an issue that many planners working on infrastructure can sympathize with.
Water and Planning Connect established a strong foundation for water professionals and planners to collaborate. As forward-looking professionals, it’s our responsibility to combine forces and continue these conversations. If we are to solve the water challenges facing us, we must bring diverse interests together to engage in dialogue and to build trust. Planners and water sector professionals can work together to advance One Water strategies like agricultural/municipal partnerships, climate resilience planning, and equity-focused affordability programs. We at the Alliance look forward to seeing Water and Planning Connect evolve and grow in the coming years.