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Local Climate Plans Tackle Fire, Floods, And Funding

Amy Westervelt


Nationally, climate change remains a highly politicized issue, with senators and some presidential candidates still arguing about whether the science is valid. But at the local level, adapting to climate change is more about pragmatism than politics. 


After four years of severe drought and diminished snow pack, this winter’s El Nino storms are a welcome sight. They’re also a potential hazard. 

Washoe County Emergency Preparedness Manager Aaron Kenniston views what he calls climate variability as just another risk to mitigate. 

“We are apolitical if you will. We’re not so concerned with why something has happened. We’re concerned with the effects.”

This year that means Kenniston is worried about flooding. 

“Because of the drought, when we do get rains they seem to be more prone to flooding. The earth doesn’t absorb the water, it runs on top of the baked desert pavement. So we’re seeing the results of our climate varying.”

Washoe County began including climate variability in its preparedness plans a few years ago when FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security reached out. “There was a big concern that local jurisdictions include things about climate variability when they’re looking at vulnerabilities. So our local emergency managers have been meeting for a couple years now and that’s one of the topics of discussion.”

The city of Reno is working at the other end of the climate spectrum, drafting a resilience action plan that looks not only at adapting to a changing climate but also at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The city’s new sustainability manager, Lynne Barker, explains. 

“We are gonna be taking a look at all of those potential solutions for reducing our greenhouse gas emissions associated with the transportation sector as well as the building sector.” 

With more businesses moving to the area and a renewed interest in development, the timing is right.

“Typically the building sector produces about 45% of greenhouse gases. Since we’re just starting a new time of rebuilding in Reno, we’re really going to have to establish a set of strategies that will encourage green building as common practice.”

Just over the state line, in California, multiple Sierra towns and counties are also moving to incorporate climate adaptation into their general plans and policies, including Truckee and Nevada City. The first Lake Tahoe Sustainability plan, covering the entire Tahoe basin, was released early last year. And then there's actually a regional initiative called the Sierra Climate Adaptation and Mitigation Partnership (or Sierra CAMP)  bringing businesses, public agencies, cities, and counties together. Diana Madson is leading that charge.

“So many of our businesses are in relation to natural resources – it’s a huge issue at play that needs to be recognized,” she says. “And so with Sierra CAMP we’re looking at how to synthesize existing efforts and bring everyone to the table. We’ve found when we’re approaching local governments on this? Pretty positive reception.”

Part of that positivity may be related to the lucrative cap-and-trade market for greenhouse gas emissions in California. Basically, companies are given a certain number of emissions permits. Some then need to purchase more permits while others have spares to sell. Those transactions are handled at quarterly auctions, where the state gets a portion of sales for its Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund. That fund just started doling out money this year to projects that cut emissions. In Truckee, the multi-use redevelopment of the old rail yard scored an $8 million grant because it will provide downtown living and reduce car trips around the region. 

“What that means is that more and more local infrastructure projects, housing projects, etcetera are going to be funded through this mechanism. Which means a huge amount of building and activity in the state is going to organize itself around – from a bureaucrat’s perspective, how do we get more money? But the effect is how do we reduce emissions more than the next town who’s applying for the same pot of money?”

That's Truckee town councilman Morgan Goodwin. He says with up to $2 billion or more available each year, towns throughout the Sierra are scrambling to look for creative ways to cut down on emissions. 

“Even though people saw it coming, the fact that it’s finally here means that all of these small, rural Sierra towns that have never thought about this before are starting to.”

Next year both Reno and Truckee will be finalizing their climate plans, while Sierra CAMP will be looking to roll out regional initiatives that include both California and northern Nevada towns. The idea is to get everyone in on the conversation about how best to manage the water, air, and other natural resources we share.

Amy Westervelt is a former contributor at KUNR Public Radio.
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