Increasing Community Resilience: Promising Ideas and Potential Strategies from the California Adaptation Forum

Increasing Community Resilience: Promising Ideas and Potential Strategies from the California Adaptation Forum

In the midst of our third year of drought, increasing wildfires, rising seas and more severe storms, more than 800 people gathered at the recent California Adaptation Forum – organized by the Local Government Commission in partnership with the State of California – to discuss strategies to increase community resilience.

“The fact that so many people – representing the diverse sectors and leaders that make up California – participated in this forum shows the growing awareness of the need to reduce the impacts of climate change and adapt to the impacts we are already facing,” said Kate Meis, executive director of the Local Government Commission, which organized the forum in partnership with the State of California.

 A Sense of Urgency

Climate change is having an increasingly widespread impact on public health, economic development and the environment in communities across the state.

“Climate change is here, and it is an enormous and growing challenge – loss of snowpack, limits on water supply, flooding from runoff, increased fire season and intensity, rising seas, coastal impacts, insect-borne diseases, heat-related issues,” said Ken Alex, Director of the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research. “It is one of those things where you can say that California truly has it all. So we need to address it, we need to confront it.”

That will mean figuring out how to “protect the state’s long coastline, keep a vast agricultural industry going, apportion dwindling water resources, drive smart development, and keep 38 million residents safe, all while dealing with a financial crisis,” wrote Brian Clark Howard this month in a National Geographic magazine article on “5 Key Threats to California from Climate Change.” (

To tackle this intractable challenge, according to Frances Spivy-Weber, the State Water Resources Control Board’s Vice Chair, will take “residents, businesses, organizations and government at every level working together to implement the innovative measures that will protect our natural resources, support a sustainable economy, and improve our community’s quality of life.”

From addressing future climate challenges to dealing with the current drought and increasing wildfire, the critical role of partnership was a theme that echoed throughout the forum. “We’ve seen a drastic increase in the number of large, damaging fires in the last decade in our state.” said Chief Ken Pimlott, who leads the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire). “Climate-smart measures by local communities, residents and businesses can help California better adapt to drought and fire conditions and develop resiliency for the future.”

Early action can substantially reduce future risks. According to the newly released Risky Business report, ( the most severe dangers can still be avoided through early investments to increase business and community resiliency and immediate action to reduce the pollution that causes global warming, the study found.

The State of California has also continued their commitment to climate resiliency with the release of the Safeguarding California Plan in July (, which updates the 2009 California Climate Adaptation Strategy and makes realistic sector-specific recommendations to reduce climate impacts and prepare for climate risks.

At the same time “Cities have become early responders to climate change challenges and opportunities.” wrote the authors ( of this year’s National Climate Assessment, Like first responders, localities do not have the wherewithal to take on the entire problem of global warming themselves. But they have tools to improve the situation until greater resources can be brought to bear.

What Local Governments Can Do – Now

Californians are responding – support for action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is at an all-time high. We’ve reached a decisive tipping point where growing public awareness and unavoidable urgency for response have converged.

“We are optimists in California. We are known for our willingness to be pioneers and we are doing it once again here,” Mary Nichols, who chairs the California Air Resources Board, said in kicking off the forum.

Mitigation and adaptation are two sides of the same coin, Nichols emphasized. “This is not just rhetoric anymore or aspirational – it is actually what is happening as we move forward.”

Below are a few strategies that were highlighted at the forum.

Integrate resiliency into all investment decisions.

Rick Cole, the deputy mayor of budget and innovation for the City of Los Angeles, told the forum audience that climate action is also one of the top-five priorities that guide the City’s budget process.

“Sustainability genuinely belongs with the budget because ultimately, in government, everything comes down to money – and to innovation, because we need to do things differently,” Cole said.

For the nation’s second-largest city, linking the environment to the budget means thinking about how their 7 billion dollars a year in investments support their climate action goals.

“We cannot isolate climate change from public safety because ultimately how safe we are depends on how we mitigate and adapt to climate change. We cannot separate it from resilience because we face threats from earthquakes or floods or natural disasters or man-made terrorism. If we become resilient as cities across the planet, we can face all these threats and overcome them,” Cole said.

In the September edition of Governing magazine, Daniel Vock highlighted efforts by other cities outside California to embrace resiliency in the face of climate change. The article highlights communities across the nation who, lacking substantial state or federal support, are using natural disasters as a way to get their infrastructure, personnel and budgets better prepared. Read more about what Dubuque, Iowa, Norfolk, Virginia, and Miami, Florida, are doing to deal with sea-level rise and increased flood risk using disaster funds.

Increase resiliency to extreme heat.

LA’s cool roofs ordinance: In December 2013 the Los Angeles City Council unanimously passed a building code update that will require all new and refurbished homes to have cool roofs, which use sunlight-reflecting materials. Los Angeles is the first major city to require such a measure. Increasing cool roofs will help reduce the urban heat island effect and help the city respond to increasing heat.

Chula Vista Urban Greening: As part of Chula Vista’s adaptation strategy, the city passed a Shade Tree Policy which requires 50% shade cover in parking lots.

Lancaster Zero Net Energy: Lancaster plans to use the plentiful sun and increasing heat to drive economic development with a vision of becoming one of the first net-zero cities in the world.

“The first thing we did is convert all the City buildings to solar: 97% of all the City power for City-owned buildings comes from the sun,” said Mayor Rex Parris. “We now have 32,000 solar panels at our schools. We have 2,000 homes with permits for solar. Next year, every kilowatt used in Lancaster will be replaced by the sun.”

The city’s building codes now require all new single-family homes must include a 1.0 kilowatt solar system, by improving permitting – residents can now receive a permit to add solar on an existing house over the counter.

Proactive steps to become one of the first net-zero communities by 2020 have transformed the town of Lancaster by increasing economic and environmental resiliency. “We have already created over 1,000 local jobs,” Parris said, in advocating resilience as a new business model. “It has not been a job killer at all – it has been our salvation.

Parris dramatically emphasized that solutions ultimately won’t come from state and federal government – “because they don’t issue building permits.” Effective resiliency strategies will come from the local level, he argued, because “this is a local problem, and you have to have the courage to demand your local officials to start addressing it.”

Increase the resiliency of local businesses.

Sacramento Business Continuity Initiative: Valley Vision and its partners are launching a regional initiative to help reduce the risks and the economic impacts of potential weather-related disasters to the business community in the Capital Region.

The project aims to elevate the awareness and understanding among area business owners and policymakers of risks to business continuity and the related social, environmental and economic impacts of lack of preparedness. It will develop a “tool kit” of interventions to help reduce risk and enhance business resiliency, and conduct a strategic outreach effort to engage leaders from the business, government and community sectors to enhance planning for economic vitality in light of climate threats. In addition to raising awareness and furnishing risk reduction strategies, this regional initiative will create a comprehensive assessment of risk at the metro-scale.

Identify vulnerabilities.

San Diego recently completed a unique stakeholder engagement program that led to the development of a unique vulnerability report for the region. “San Diego, 2050 Is Calling. How Will We Answer?” was part of an effort by the Climate Education Partners to develop and implement a climate-change education plan for the region. The partners worked with local scientists, educators and a wide range of community leaders, including members of the LGC-supported ARCCA San Diego Climate Collaborative and the San Diego Foundation.

San Diego’s approach is a great model for building engagement with climate adaptation, because it combined the voices of local leaders, localized scientific information and public perceptions (via survey results) to create a document that not only provides critical information about vulnerabilities, but also shows leadership engaged in the conversation and shares broader data on local support for these issues. Taken together, it is a very effective approach for calling on community members and leaders to participate in building a more resilient future for the region.

Responding to rising seas.

Adapting to Rising Tides (ART) project: This multi-year adaptation project is being led by the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission in partnership with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coastal Services Center, to assess vulnerability and risk of a number of assets (including Oakland International Airport) to sea-level rise and storm events within a part of the East Bay from Emeryville to Union City. The vulnerability assessment will be used to develop adaptation strategies that will increase resilience in the project area. Learn more about ART (

Bay Area Resilient Shorelines: The Resilient Shorelines Initiative is showing how regional leadership and coordination can scale up to address sea-level rise. Implemented through the Joint Policy Committee (a regional partnership between by BCDC, MTC, the Association of Bay Area Governments and the Bay Area Air Quality Management District), this initiative has a four-part strategy: focus on institutional structures and resources needed to improve regional resilience; develop in collaboration with regional stakeholders; consider nature-based solutions, economy, equity and governance; and implement through local and regional planning.

Beach Erosion Authority for Clean Oceans and Nourishment (BEACON)– Further south along the California coast, local leaders have formed a joint powers authority comprised of municipalities from Santa Barbara to Ventura County called BEACON. The regional collaboration deals with erosion issues and resiliency strategies along its shared coastline. The JPA is currently in the process of implementing an innovative pilot program through the region to reduce erosion and grapple with effects of sea-level rise. (

“We are concerned about the impacts that climate change is having in our community,” said Santa Barbara County Supervisor Salud Carbajal. “We are developing our climate action plan, and a hazard and vulnerability assessment. In addition to developing a climate action plan, we are working on innovative projects that will also go toward making our county more resilient.”

These coastal resiliency efforts also extend to interrelated issues, like generating alternative energy and diverting waste. The county is building a new anaerobic waste conversion facility that will help it improve recycling rates and create alternative energy. The waste reduction will be equivalent to taking 27,000 cars off the streets of Santa Barbara County.

Addressing flood risks.

Napa RiverNapa Creek Flood Protection Project: The Napa River has seen 22 serious floods since 1862. After two hard-infrastructure approaches were rejected by voters, a community coalition of businesses, environmentalists, residents and stakeholder agencies developed a “living river” approach, which envisioned reconnecting the river to its historic flood plain, maintaining the natural slope and width of the river and other natural features such as mud flats, shallows and sandbars, and supporting a continuous fish and riparian corridor along the river. Part of the environmental restoration also includes creation of wetlands. That strategy was ultimately approved through Measure A by a two-thirds majority of voters.

In addition to environmental restoration, the project increased public and private investment ($898 million from 1997-2010) and revitalization along the riverfront while reducing flood risk.

Increasing water resiliency.

Green infrastructure in Los Angeles: Los Angeles has created a number of low impact development models using bonds and reallocating funds from hard-infrastructure projects to provide finance green infrastructure projects that achieve water conservation, water quality, flood protection and stormwater management objectives.

In 2004, Los Angeles voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition O, which authorized $500 million in bonds for water conservation, water quality, flood protection and stormwater management projects. They also passed an LID ordinance in 2012 to ensure that development and redevelopment projects mitigate runoff using natural resources and capturing rainwater at its source.

This commitment has resulted in large-scale initiatives, such as the Sun Valley Watershed project, that integrate flood control, stormwater pollution reduction and water conservation efforts through infiltration and stormwater recycling practices.

Windsor PAYS: The Town of Windsor was the first municipality in California to approve an innovative water conservation and energy-efficiency upgrade program that provides residents with immediate savings on utility bills and requires no upfront cost or new debt.

Windsor’s Pay as You Save Program (PAYS) provides conservation incentives by allowing customers to pay for water and energy-efficiency upgrades – including high-efficiency toilets, showerheads, washing machines and drought-tolerant landscaping – over time through a utility bill surcharge, with no upfront expense.

The program has saved over 5.87 million gallons in water for indoor and irrigation uses and more than 72,000 kWh of electricity. For more info (

 Moving towards resiliency

Combating climate change has been called the biggest challenge of this era. Tackling such an intractable issue will require an unprecedented level of innovation and collaboration.

“To achieve our goals on climate we must continue to expand our existing networks and partnerships to include far more than government.Mainstreaming consideration of climate impacts in major decisions at organizations throughout the State is starting, and needs to be accelerated,” said Michael McCormick, Senior Planner and Advisor, Governor’s Office of Planning and Research.

The California Adaptation Forum was intended to build the capacity of adaptation practitioners and drive coordinated action across levels of leadership to implement integrated resiliency strategies that protect our state’s people, built environment and natural systems. Initial feedback, diversity of participants and newly formed partnerships points towards early successes. Ultimately, though, the success will be measured by the actions that come in the next two years.

California’s position as a global leader on climate change is built on the actions of proactive policymakers and agents of change at the local, regional and state levels.