A Regional Approach to Building Climate Resilience

By Stacy Vynne, the Resource Innovation Group

The question of how to design and implement effective adaptation measures is one that I think most adaptation practitioners are still struggling with, and will continue to struggle with, for many years to come. With hundreds of adaptation initiatives underway around the world, we are beginning to develop a set of best practices that will be valuable as we move forward with further project implementation. What many of us are finding is that adaptation isn’t a one size fits all- effective adaptation will likely vary by region and expected climate impacts as well as be driven by the local economy, demographics, and values. Where I work, The Resource Innovation Group, we are attempting to provide some insight into this challenging question of “effective” adaptation by experimenting with different approaches. We are currently embarking on a project aims to engage the greater region in collaboration around climate change adaptation through the Willamette Valley Resilience Compact.

The Willamette Valley is located in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States and in western Oregon. The Willamette Valley’s nine counties encompass 2.6 million residents (70% of Oregon’s population) and about 75% of the state’s economy. Not accounting for climate refugees, the population is projected to grow to four million by mid-century. In regards to climate impacts, the Willamette Valley (and Pacific Northwest for that matter) is actually pretty well off compared to other parts of the country and world. We will likely experience significant heat events, more extreme floods and fires, and see major consequences to our snowpack (which we depend on for drinking water and recreation), but overall we’ll likely see less extreme change than, for example, the Southwestern part of the country.

That being said, our region is not immune to fluctuations in the economy, natural hazards events, or anticipated impacts from a changing climate. Our approach to managing and adapting to this change in

The Willamette Valley is to develop an integrated, cooperative approach led by local governments that engages state and federal agencies, stakeholders from the private sector, and non-governmental organizations as a means to strengthen community and regional resilience to build a sustainable future for the entire Willamette Valley.

What does that mouthful of a sentence actually mean? We have developed a Willamette Valley Resilience Compact to build “resilience” and the desire to work collaboratively at a regional level. Beginning in 2012, elected officials from across the Willamette Valley will begin to endorse the Compact, from which we’ll develop a work plan, identify priority projects, and pursue funding to implement regional-scale initiatives. Endorsement of the Compact will mean that a jurisdiction is committing to working at a regional scale on share interests around resilience and that they’ll consider the impacts of their decision-making on the region as a whole.

So far the jurisdictions are enthusiastic about collaborating at a greater scale on issues that can’t be addressed effectively at a local level: to them, working together on issues of food security, renewable energy development, sustainable economic growth and job creation, low-carbon transportation, and protection of water resources “just makes sense” (as stated by one of the participating city mayors).

This is not the first project of its kind. Since 2009 my former supervisor, who now works with the Institute for Sustainable Communities, has been facilitating the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Compact: a collaboration on climate change planning efforts across Broward, Miami-Dade, Monroe and Palm Beach counties. We have seen such great success working at a regional scale in the Southeast Florida model, that we hope to use the lessons learned to develop our model project in the Willamette Valley.

For the Willamette Valley Resilience Compact, and likely other regional initiatives happening around the country, some of the anticipated benefits for jurisdiction participation include:

  1. Increased effectiveness of advocacy at the state and federal level;
  2. Improved efficiency of implementing projects, through reduced duplication of efforts, expanding best practices, and sharing capacity and resources;
  3. Engagement of state and federal agencies to provide technical support at a large scale;
  4. Enhanced opportunities to leverage resources from funding agencies; and
  5. Reduced competition over funding and other resources by working collectively toward a shared vision and goal.

While climate change adaptation, or resilience, is an underlying theme for the Compact, a great strength of the Willamette Valley Resilience Compact is that the focus can really be tailored to meet the resilience needs and values of each of the communities to obtain their buy-in. Specific projects the collective will embark upon at a regional scale may include:

  • Food System Resilience: Transition parts of the Valley that currently grown non-food crops to food, conduct research on climate tolerant crops, invest in shared processing infrastructure, develop a more efficient distribution systems.
  • Water and Energy Resilience: Research on water storage opportunities for drinking water and hydroelectric power for years of significantly reduced snowpack; development of a strategy for Valleywide expansion of renewable energy development.
  • Community Resilience: Expand regional natural hazards planning initiatives, particularly with a focus on flood control and heat; work closely with emergency managers and the public health sector to develop resilience strategies and response mechanisms at the Valley scale.
  • Ecosystem Resilience: Maintain or restore multiple areas of habitat and large-scale connectivity to facilitate population stability and habitat shifts resulting from land use and climate change.
  • Economic / Infrastructure Resilience: Develop policies that will serve to reduce future risk and economic losses associated with flooding and other events in designated areas through infrastructure improvements, insurance subsidization of high-hazard development, and by directing development and growth to non-vulnerable areas.

While there were a number of jurisdictions working together already, developing a collaboration across the entire Willamette Valley has taken a significant effort on our part. We first began engaging with the communities in the Willamette Valley approximately three years ago while holding Climate Futures Forums. Holding these community based workshops allowed us to get to know the city and county staff, as well as other leaders in the community. We produced a credible, and for many communities, extremely useful product, in the form of a climate adaptation report at no expense to them. The reports (developed under the Climate Futures Forums process) identified local climate projections for a specific community as well as the recommended strategies for adaptation that were appropriate given the economy, environment, culture, and politics. Based on this foundation, we were able to meet one-on-one with staff from key jurisdictions to explore the Compact concept over an 18-month period.  We also held a meeting in March of 2011 with the cities and counties to gain an understanding of their vision for the future of the Willamette Valley: what would it look like in the ideal sense in 20 or 50 years? Based on the individual meetings and a vision developed at the workshop, our staff drafted the language of the Compact, which was then vetted with the jurisdictions for several months.

In addition to working with the cities and counties, we have also begun engaging state and federal agencies, regional transportation and utility providers, and non-governmental organizations. It is expected that these interested groups will engage in the Compact through an advisory committee, working groups, and on specific projects where their expertise is sought.

In mid-December, we brought the interested parties together in the first annual Willamette Valley Resilience Compact Summit. Participants included elected officials and key staff from the Willamette Valley jurisdictions, state and federal agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and university researchers. The event was used to build momentum and enthusiasm for Compact adoption by local governments across the region. Panelists presented ideas for regional collaborations around certain projects or areas of interest (climate change, sustainable economic growth, water management, renewable energy, food and agriculture, etc), while elected officials from throughout the region stated their support for the collaboration and offered to advocate on the Compact’s behalf.

So now that we have engaged all of these groups and built interest for the regional collaboration, where do we go from here? Starting in early 2012, we’ll be working with jurisdictions to get the Compact endorsed by their elected officials. We will also be developing our first year workplan, identifying working groups around topic areas (food, water, energy, etc), and pursing funding opportunities to support the collaboration as a whole as well as specific projects. At future Summits, we will be able to demonstrate consistent collaboration on resilience and building of benefits and opportunities for the Valley as a whole.

The Willamette Valley Resilience Compact is a work in progress, and will likely evolve and shift overtime. We do think that working on a regional scale is an effective approach to building effective adaptation strategies- as well as resilience to other uncertainties that are communities face- and hope to be able to demonstrate success in the future.

You can read more about our work in the Willamette Valley Resilience Compact here: http://www.theresourceinnovationgroup.org/wvrc

And on the Southeast Florida project here: http://www.southeastfloridaclimatecompact.org

This Willamette Valley project is funded by the Bullitt Foundation and the Kresge Foundation. The Resource Innovation Group is a nonprofit organization based in Eugene, Oregon. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect the organization.