Recent studies have shown the potentially dire consequences of climate change on the San Diego region’s water resources. The time for planners to act, is now!

The state’s 2018 Fourth Climate Change Assessment provides a comprehensive statewide assessment of short- and long-term risks resulting from climate change. In conjunction with this report, the State also published the San Diego Region Report, a first-of-its kind detailed assessment of the risks that threaten our own region.

These reports paint a grim picture of our future in the coming decades. For the San Diego region, the authors observe that “Climate change in San Diego is projected to increase flooding (both coastal and riv­erine) as well as increase fire risk due to an extended fire season.” These increased hazards will result in public health impacts, transportation and energy disruptions and damage to the region’s ecosystems. The report notes that these hazards will also lead to impacts on water resources: “the loss of habitat may impact water quality due to erosion, and the filter capacity of the landscape may be altered. Flooding impacts are primarily immediate and include road closures, electricity disruptions, and sedimentation and water quality issues, as well as impacts to wastewater systems which can cause public health concerns, particularly in the cross-border regions.”

The consequences of climate change on the natural and built environment, and on public health and safety, are now being seen in regions across the US.  The American Planning Association’s Regional and Intergovernmental Planning Division has recently published a research report / policy handbook, Regional Water Planning for Climate Resilience, that explores the connections between regional water planning and climate resilience. The report can be downloaded at no charge.

This report includes case studies of six regions, including San Diego County.  Each case study reviews existing regional water planning programs, describes current efforts to integrate those programs, and discusses opportunities to address climate resilience issues through integrated regional water planning.

The San Diego County Case Study demonstrates the effects of climate change on regional water planning and recommends a set of next steps. Among those next steps, planners in the San Diego region have a unique opportunity and a responsibility to communicate the results of these recent reports to a broader audience, and to ensure that this information is given proper consideration in the region’s planning processes.

Regional Water Planning

Over the past several years, the San Diego region has been a leader in integrated regional water management planning, with the Integrated Regional Water Management (IRWM) Planning Program focused primarily on climate change mitigation rather than climate resilience and adaptation.

However, the San Diego Region Report lays out the consequences of climate change on the region’s water resources in especially stark terms. Phase 2 of the 2019 IRWM Plan update now underway offers the best near-term opportunity to incorporate the key findings of the San Diego Region Report into the IRWM planning process including findings and recommendations related to climate change adaptation. This will ensure that the IRWM Plan is based on the latest available scientific findings and recommendations and is coordinated with other regional water resource planning efforts.

Regional and Local Hazard Mitigation Planning

The case study also recommends that the key findings of the San Diego Region Report be presented to public agency staff who are involved with the San Diego County Multi-Ju­risdictional Hazard Mitigation Plan, as well as staff working on updates to Gener­al Plan Safety Elements in all 18 cities and the County.

Planners, engineers, and emergency management professionals must find opportunities to collaborate with one another on the updated Safety Elements. OPR’s General Plan Guidelines contains recommendations for addressing “climate change adaptation and resilience” under SB 379 and other applicable laws and regulations. The Guidelines also include more specific direction regarding how to address flood hazards and wildfire hazards in Safety Element updates.  By working together on technical analyses, community engagement, and policy development, local government staff can gain valuable insights, improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the planning process, and achieve actionable and measurable outcomes. Organizations such as the San Diego Regional Climate Collaborative and other stakeholders could also play a valuable role in this effort.

Regional Greenprint Planning

The case study also suggests a longer-term strategy built around a “Regional Greenprint” planning approach. A “Regional Greenprint” is a strategic conservation planning tool that reveals the economic, social, and environmental benefits that parks, open space, and working lands provide to communities. Such benefits include recreational opportunities, habitat protection and connectivity, clean water, agricultural land preservation, and increased resilience to climate change. The APA report provides examples of Regional Greenprint planning approaches, including the San Francisco Bay Area.










The San Diego Case Study underscores a heightened sense of urgency for addressing the effects of climate change on natural systems such as water resources, as well as the public safety and health issues associated with natural hazards such as flooding and wildfires. Urban planners in the San Diego Region must play a critical role in addressing these challenging issues, using both our communications skills and technical skills in plan-making, policy development, and implementation. There is no time to waste!