Futurewire Newsletter

Our Sprawling Ways: Just water under a bridge?

by Hilary Franz, Executive Director

Locally and nationally, we are confronting significant problems including global warming, challenged natural resources, limited funding infrastructure, and growing health care needs and social inequities. Many of the answers to these problems of our time are contained within the community planning work that we do: it is how we, as a people, decide to inhabit the earth we live on. Will we place ourselves into patterns that consume land and water resources and require driving for every trip? Or will we create compact neighborhoods in which every person has the ability to walk to local stores, access great transit, and be assured adequate water supply? The days of acting as if we can make community planning decisions in the absence of long term financial, environmental, social, as well as regional and global considerations, is delusional at best and irresponsible at worst.

Two recent occurrences this month that best illustrate the challenges and the opportunities ahead:

First, a recent decision by the Washington State Growth Management Hearings Board found that a local government must make sure its planned development matches up with its available water resources. Since most of Whatcom County is closed to new water withdrawals, the County cannot continue to allow new developments unless an applicant can show the withdrawals will not impact stream flows. Going further, the Board recognized the negative impact poorly planned land use and land development practices are having on the Puget Sound region and Whatcom County.

This decision is important because it more closely links up planning of our most essential resource – water - , usually done by a water utility or with land use planning usually done by a local government. The form of where we put our future growth and the land use changes that accompany it significantly affect demand of our water supplies. If we accommodate the nearly 1.7 million people moving to Washington State between now and 2030 in more compact urban areas and multifamily dwellings, we could reduce water use from a business-as-usual scenario. It has been well documented that large lots are a major contributor to both residential and commercial water use, largely due to landscape uses. Nationwide, lawn care alone accounts for an average of 50 percent of household water use. More compact development also allows for shorter transmission systems, reducing leak losses and reducing energy needs for pumping and pressurization. Infill development leverages ratepayers’ investment in existing water delivery infrastructure while sprawl development increases capital and maintenance costs for all users.

But the responsibility for minimizing future water demand through better land use planning and compact development lies with local government planning departments and decision makers. These planning staff and elected officials need to do more to consider water issues in long range planning and zoning decisions and to require that new development meet or exceed efficiency standards. The Growth Board’s decision, which Futurewise was a significant part of, presents a critical opportunity to better connect water resources with land use planning – especially given the impacts climate change will have on our region.

Second, the recent bridge collapse on I-5 near Skagit County reveals the significant cost of our existing infrastructure and the challenge we have in just maintaining what we have already built. This bridge did not need to collapse. Sprawling land use patterns, along with limited funding for paying for the infrastructure and limited prioritization of maintaining infrastructure has left our local governments and our state with a backlog of critical transportation improvements. As we prepare for the growth to come, local, regional and state government should consider the existing transportation infrastructure deficit before they mount further debt onto the books as a result of our sprawling habits. Increasing road infrastructure as a result of sprawling new development will only deplete the already limited funds available at the state and local level for repairing and maintaining existing roads and bridges.

In short, moving away from sprawling land use patterns towards more compact community development can reduce both the cost of water provided to ratepayers and the quantity of water they demand. It can also reduce the cost of basic infrastructure, from transportation to stormwater and sewer, reducing significantly the costs to taxpayers. The significant investments in bus rapid transit and light rail within the Puget Sound region presents an opportunity to leverage this significant investment to rethink our historical sprawling tendencies and move towards more compact communities.

The stories in this month’s Futurewire show our progress as a state and region as well as our setbacks in the battle to change our sprawling habits. We invite you to join us as we look at the challenges and the opportunities ahead and as we work towards more compact community planning within our cities.

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