This photograph of the San Gabriel Mountains from Anaheim is a prime example of how housing, transportation, and natural lands can co-exist in Southern California.

Resilience is the ability to withstand uncertainty, recover rapidly from disruptions, and prepare for and adapt to changing conditions. As Southern Californians, we have two key questions before us: How can we improve the region’s climate resiliency? And, what tools do we have to plan for a more resilient future? In short, our resiliency could be vastly improved with comprehensive planning that is informed by data and risk assessment–and is properly planned for and mitigated.

Southern California suffers ongoing extreme drought, degraded air quality, regular and destructive wildfires, and more high heat days than ever before. Responding to these challenges has required the state and local jurisdictions to exercise mandatory water rations, and additionally, private home insurance is eliminated in and near wildfire prone areas. Environmental justice communities across California, who often lack access to core community benefits like transportation, affordable housing, medical care, and outdoor recreation, also experience the greatest public health constraints tied to clean air, safe drinking water, and heat exacerbation.

Lakefront homes overlooking the drought riddled Big Bear Lake in 2022. The pedestrian bridge over the Stanfield Marsh is now elevated above a meadow, instead of the lake.

Many of our region’s climate constraints receive a more reactive response, as opposed to proactive. For example, during inevitable droughts, water agencies respond with mandatory water rationing. This is reactive. Instead, water agencies could proactively mitigate drought years by using data to initiate better policies that anticipate the ongoing droughts. Others should take lessons from the Irvine Ranch Water District whose Water Efficiency Team, which includes experts on water use audits, educational programs, and how to upgrade landscaping to drought tolerant plants, are saving customers money.

California’s severe, deadly, and persistent wildfire seasons frequently make international news. The devastating Bond Fire in December 2020, which burned almost 6,700 acres in Silverado Canyon was a winter conflagration, outside the typical fire season. And, to add insult to injury, the data shows wildfires produce harmful air pollutants that are known to cause heart and lung effects because of PM2.5 and carbon monoxide. Another proactive response would be to require upgrades and retrofitting of air filtration systems to protect public health and safety. In fact, pollution from California’s 2020 wildfires likely offset decades of air quality gains.

A plane drops Phos-Chek, a fire retardant, on the still smoldering hillsides above Brea. Smoke from wildfires travels hundreds of miles. In winter months, rain on charred hills increases the likelihood of mudflows.

Some in the development community point to innovative technologies like interior sprinklers and composite exteriors, plus updated building codes that make new homes more fire resistant. However, the 2017 Thomas Fire disaster–where many homes were built according to stricter building codes designed for fire resistance, but still within CAL FIRE’s “Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zones,” burned. This is proof that relying on these techniques alone, without planning smarter, can lead to widespread community harm.

Responding to climate change locally requires us to think about how to support our communities by protecting our landscapes while improving the social, environmental, and economic health of our urban places. California’s critical housing shortage is no excuse to build in areas of extreme fire danger. But, Orange County Supervisors still approve multi-million dollar housing in danger zones like the hills above Yorba Linda. Myriad studies illuminate that the type of housing most critically needed in our region is not more homes in the wildland urban interface, but community-centered housing that enhances quality of life for the neighborhood in safe locations that address affordability, perpetual water shortages, and transportation availability.

Residents enjoy pick up games of basketball at Mile Square Park in Fountain Valley on a Saturday morning.

It’s great news that state and local leaders have begun important work to advance proactive, and science-informed urban planning strategies such as infill development. In 2020, the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) adopted a Sustainable Communities Strategy which advances the placement of homes and jobs close to transit and vital community infrastructure, like schools, hospitals, and grocery stores.

The next step is to ensure that policymakers and urban planners have access to science and data-driven tools that uncover critical information about our local and regional climate preparedness, existing vulnerabilities, equity and environmental justice, and the built environment. Without such tools, these crucial factors would otherwise remain largely imperceptible. Investing in data-driven tools could provide decision-makers and community members with information about past and future risks of planning and development, as well as supporting informed decisions on housing and transportation infrastructure. For example, the OC-San Diego train service continues to be disrupted due to slope failure and beach erosion.

SCAG’s Energy and Environment Committee, made up of local council members, mayors, and county supervisors, will review and recommend the draft Regional Advance Mitigation Planning Policy Framework on Thursday, January 5th at 9:30 AM. The framework develops guidelines to support cities and counties by advancing a science-based approach that identifies opportunities to mitigate the environmental impacts of infrastructure projects early in the planning process, and before the design and permitting phases. For example, Orange County is bordered by Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Riverside and San Diego County, but agency territories typically limit cross-county collaboration. A more regional approach encourages collaboration and improved outcomes.

Advance mitigation streamlines permitting, reduces project delays, spends taxpayer dollars more wisely, provides assurances, and meets resiliency goals. The Orange County Transportation Authority has an advance mitigation program that has been nationally recognized and has wide community and conservation support. But, not every project is covered by this program–more mitigation may be needed. And, a cross-county program would further enhance this regional planning approach.

The framework additionally includes a multi-jurisdictional approach to conservation that supports spatially cumulative impacts for environmental offsets. This means that SCAG’s framework could promote conservation management across city and county lines, and directly supports a region that is planned for and resilient to the predictable yet harmful impacts of wildfire. Consequently, lands that straddle the Orange County-LA County or Orange-Riverside County borders could be collaboratively protected. For the safety of our communities, our environment, and our region as a whole, I urge adoption of the framework. Together, we can build a resilient region.

Cindy Montañez is a longtime champion for regional and local planning and achieves this through her work as Executive Director at TreePeople by bringing people together around the environment, sustainable urban planning, and social justice. She is serving her second term on the San Fernando’s City Council.

Opinions expressed in community opinion pieces belong to the authors and not Voice of OC.

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