How Communities Can Build Resilience by Integrating Land and Water Planning

By Will Jason, Febrero 23, 2022


From the suburban boomtowns of the Colorado River Basin to the postindustrial cities of the Northeast, communities across the United States can benefit from integrating land and water planning in the face of increasing water demands, climate change, and other risks, according to a new Policy Focus Report from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. 

In Integrating Land Use and Water Management: Planning and Practice, author Erin Rugland of the Lincoln Institute’s Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy explains how integrating land and water can help communities deal with increased drought or flooding as they navigate the uncertainty of a warming planet and changes in their communities. She outlines best practices in land use planning and water management, provides a detailed menu of policy tools, and shares four success stories from vastly different places: Evans, Colorado; Hillsborough County, Florida; Philadelphia; and Golden Valley, Minnesota. 

“Water is not only essential to life and to thriving communities, but it brings value to land,” Rugland writes in the report. “Land use determines the character of communities and in turn greatly impacts water demand, water quality, and flooding risks. Connecting land with water and understanding these resources in the context of issues like equity, resiliency, and climate change is critical for building and sustaining healthy communities for the future.” 

Although land and water are inextricably linked, land use planning and water management have historically occurred in silos. Rugland clearly explains each discipline, focusing on a key policy framework for each—the comprehensive plan and the water management plan. Comprehensive plans lay out a community’s long-term vision, with an emphasis on themes like economic development, transportation, and housing. Water management plans vary more widely from place to place; some focus narrowly on drinking water supply, while others incorporate wastewater and stormwater. 

As the report describes, state policy can play a significant role in promoting the integration of land and water planning, whether through mandates or resources. Colorado, for instance, requires utilities to consider how land use efforts can reduce water use. The state also supports the Colorado Water and Land Use Planning Alliance, a peer learning group for local practitioners. Pennsylvania is one of five states to require a water element in local comprehensive plans. And Minnesota’s state legislature established the Metropolitan Council, one of the strongest regional planning agencies in the country, which helps communities in the Twin Cities area coordinate development plans with water supplies and requirements. 

The report shows how four communities, driven by state policy and their own initiative, have integrated land and water planning in different ways: 

  • Evans, Colorado, used a new water efficiency plan to secure buy-in and resources to implement a fixture replacement program, landscape design regulations, and other measures.  
  • Hillsborough County, Florida, which includes the Tampa metropolitan area, added a new One Water chapter to its comprehensive plan, leading to policies to encourage development near existing water supplies, deal with environmental damage, and invest in stormwater infrastructure.  
  • Philadelphia enacted a plan to use green infrastructure to filter stormwater, reduce pollution, and improve quality of life.  
  • Golden Valley, Minnesota, an inner-ring suburb of Minneapolis, is working with neighboring communities to protect water quality, mitigate stormwater runoff and flooding, promote conservation of drinking water, and renovate aging infrastructure. 

The report offers four key recommendations for policy makers based on the experiences of these communities and others: collaborate locally, coordinate regional expertise and oversight, build capacity through funding and technical assistance, and use state mandates. 

Integrating Land Use and Water Management is relevant, informative, and necessary at this moment in time,” said Chi Ho Sham, president of the American Water Works Association and vice president and chief scientist of Eastern Research Group. “In the age of specialization, we have created many silos. As problems with the urban water cycle become more complex and multidimensional, collaboration with other disciplinary experts is needed. This report provides a practical bridge to facilitate collaboration between land use planners and water management.” 

Image: Master-planned community in Chandler, Arizona. Credit: Art Wager via Getty Images.