By Matt Nichols
In the Chicago suburbs, the Northwest Water Planning Alliance (NWPA) has taken great strides toward regional collaboration on water supply planning, including passing a uniform lawn watering ordinance that will reduce strain on shared aquifers as it goes into effect in individual municipalities. While the NWPA is the first organization of its kind to form as a result of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s broader Water 2050 plan, a similar type of interjurisdictional collaboration on water issues is already common in California, thanks to a 2002 law that encouraged the voluntary creation of Integrated Regional Water Management Plans (IRWM) and offered funding for carrying them out.
A decade after the bill authorizing these plans was passed in the state legislature, 87 percent of California’s land area and 99 percent of its population is covered by one of the state’s 48 water planning areas, according to an overview of the program by the American Water Resources Assocation. In effect, this means that nearly all of California has the potential to benefit from the same advantages that an organization like NWPA offers: improved long-term water supply planning; pooling of financial and physical resources; and enhanced capacity for research, policy and advocacy. Only a handful of other states are managing water resources regionally – like Texas, where 16 regions are responsible for creating and implementing comprehensive plans every five years.
In California, the stakeholders represented on each region’s water management team reflect the area’s environmental, economic and social concerns. Typically, these groups include municipal planning offices, public or private utility operators, and academics from local universities. Together, the members decide on regional projects and can apply for grants from the state to fund them. Prioritized project categories include “drought preparedness, efficiency in water use [and] integrated flood management,” among others. These are many of the same challenges facing Illinois.
Since water flows do not respect town or county lines, working to solve water issues at the regional level has several advantages. First, as increasing demand for strained water resources creates the possibility for tension between water users, collaborative planning can avert conflict and generate mutually beneficial outcomes. The program does this by conducting joint fact-finding and inviting stakeholders to participate in the process from the beginning.
Second, regional planning can be a powerful tool to improve outcomes for disadvantaged communities which lack the resources to create long-term plans or compete for grants by themselves. The California IRWM program set aside $10 million in grant funding for these communities in 2009 to help them get a foot in the door. Low-income urban communities can be incorporated into regional plans for the larger metropolitan area and participate in the resulting projects without having to bear the initial burden alone. Alternately, sparsely populated rural areas can also benefit by pooling their resources to apply for funding.
The California grant program is structured to funnel resources toward the most urgent statewide water issues, such as reducing flooding, coordinating local water supplies during drought, and implementing water reuse practices. These are much the same challenges facing the Chicago region. However, while California voters have approved almost $2 billion in funding for IRWM projects over the past decade (mostly through the sale of bonds), the program is not intended to serve as a permanent pipeline of funds from Sacramento. Ultimately, these regional groups must be convinced that the benefits to their communities justify continuing the effort even after the state grant program ends and they must find alternate sources of funding, such as stormwater fees or full-cost water pricing.