Too much, too little: Water management in cities under climate change

June 01, 2023 | Water in the West | Insights

Brennecke Gale

As the effects of climate change grow, effective urban water management becomes more complex and crucial. Water management challenges – and their solutions – are not one-size-fits-all, though. Some cities, like New York City and San Francisco, face flooding and sea level rise, while Los Angeles must contend with both an evaporating water supply and times of excess stormwater. This past March, Felicia Marcus, the Landreth Visiting Fellow with Stanford’s Water in the West program, met with spokespeople from these three cities to discuss natural water solutions at a side panel of the UN 2023 Water Conference. Read on for takeaways from the conversation.

Los Angeles: Climate adaptation in a water-scarce region

Rita Kampalath, Acting Chief Sustainability Officer of L.A. County

  • Los Angeles, the largest county by population in the nation, historically relies on water diverted from sources like the Colorado River and Sierra Nevada snowpack, which are increasingly strained by climate change.
  • In addition to drought, L.A. has a long history of devastating floods – a loss of precious water and a primary source of pollution to waterways.
  • L.A. County’s “Safe Clean Water Plan” tackles the area’s need for water quality and quantity. It combines water conservation and recycling, stormwater capture, and groundwater recharge to address multiple water issues at once, all while prioritizing resources and funding for the most vulnerable communities. 

San Francisco Bay Area: Combating sea level rise

Warner Chabot, Executive Director at the San Francisco Estuary Institute (SFEI)

  • The San Francisco Bay Area faces rising sea levels, rising groundwater levels, and risk of lowland flooding during storms.
  • Healthy wetlands along the shores of the Bay can protect communities from a myriad of climate hazards, including flooding, sea level rise, and water pollution, but the Bay’s wetland area has been reduced by 85 percent since human development began.
  • SFEI is working to restore wetlands via thirty specific, nature-based solutions for different shoreline segments around the Bay.

New York: A heavily developed island city

Pinar Balci, Assistant Commissioner of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection

  • New York City is expecting an increase in average precipitation by four to 11 percent by 2050, resulting in more common episodes of heavy flooding.
  • The city’s “Cloudburst Management 2.0” infrastructure plan combines grey infrastructure, like pipes and underground tanks, with green infrastructure, like trees and rain gardens to absorb, store, and transfer excess water during periods of heavy rainfall.
  • Cloudburst is planning for the climate future: targets for maximum volume of stored stormwater exceed even the worst levels seen during recent floods.


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