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Issues Of The Environment: Washtenaw County Advancing Climate Action Plan

Sue Shink
Sue Shink

Washtenaw County had already declared an official climate emergency, and it has set a goal of getting the entire county carbon neutral by the year 2035. The "Climate Action Planning Team" has been formed, and the next steps are being taken. Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners chair Sue Shink joined WEMU's David Fair to discuss the work ahead.  


  • Washtenaw County is taking note of the climate crisis. Ann Arbor has set an ambitious agenda to become carbon neutral by 2030 and recognized a climate emergency. Ypsilanti is working toward carbon neutrality by 2035, and in 2019 (prior to the Covid-19 interruptions), climate strikes were well-attended on the UM campus. 

  • According to floodfactor.com, approximately 9,737 properties are already at risk for flooding in Washtenaw County, and within 30 years, about 10,228 will be at risk. Washtenaw County Commissioner Sue Shink reports, “We already sustained over $3million damage to residents’ property in the June flooding [this year].

  • The Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners declared a climate emergency in fall of 2019, and $30,000 was approved for a climate action plan to greatly decrease greenhouse gas emissions by 2035. The Washtenaw County Environmental Council approved a resolution to support the creation of a Climate Action Plan for the county during their meeting August 24, 2021. Voting for further action, including the creation of a Climate Action Planning team. is expected at the next Board of Commissioners meeting.

  • Sue Shink, Chair of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners and a Commissioner for District 2, joined the WCBC in 2019, and is on the Environmental Committee among other appointments. She is a local attorney with a masters degree in Resource Policy from the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment (now SEAS) who has held numerous board posts relating to environmental health and policy in the county for years. 

Washtenaw County Environmental Council August 24, 2021 (resolution)


WHEREAS; the Washtenaw County Environmental Council was established by the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners through resolution 18-191, and the mission of the environmental council is to develop recommendations to achieve net zero emissions, reduce the overall contributions to climate change, protect and improve the environment, and to prioritize environmental justice, and

WHEREAS; on August 7, 2021 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released “The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate”, and this report states unequivocally that human influence has warmed the planet, the scale of these changes are unprecedented over centuries to millennia, and that this change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region of the globe, and that temperature limits will be exceeded unless deep reductions in C02 and other greenhouse gas emissions occur; and

WHEREAS; the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners has adopted numerous resolutions to show support for efforts to stop and reverse actions causing climate change, and to set the County on a path to achieve net zero emissions; including resolution 17-100 pledging the intent to take action in accordance with the goals of the Paris Climate Accord, resolution 19- 165 which declared a climate emergency, resolution 20-122 setting an organizational carbon neutrality goal of 2030, and resolution 19-165 setting a community carbon neutrality goal of 2035, and

WHEREAS; resolution also 20-122 also directs the development and presentation of a climate action plan to the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners, inclusive of a just, equitable, and participatory climate mobilization; and

WHEREAS; the Board of Commissioners allocated $30,000 through resolution 19-212 to fund the development of a County Climate Action Plan; and

WHEREAS; on April 8, 2021 a plan to develop a Washtenaw County Climate Action Plan was proposed to the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners at their working session, and this proposal put forth a process to work with an outside party to create a community engagement process, climate action plan, and implementation recommendations to achieve a carbon neutral organization by 2030, and carbon neutral community by 2035, in a manner aligned with the goals and qualities desired by the Board of Commissioners

WHEREAS; this proposal was further developed and brought to the Environmental Council for review and improvement at their April 27, 2021 and May 25, 2021 meetings; and

WHEREAS; on June 6, 2021 Washtenaw County published Request for Proposal (RFP) #8118 – the Washtenaw County Community and Organizational Climate Action Plan, and was open for 30 days to interested parties, and returned 4 proposals for consideration; and

WHEREAS, a selection committee was established to review the proposals submitted in response to the County RFP, and was designed to be inclusive of many of the populations and priorities expressed regarding the direction of the Climate Action Plan. This selection committee included staff support from Bethann Duffy, Washtenaw County Senior Buyer, and included:

  • Kris Olsson – Chair of the Washtenaw County Environmental Council, Ann Arbor Township Trustee
  • Sue Shink – Environmental Council member, Chair of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners
  • Dr. Missy Stults – former Environmental Council member, City of Ann Arbor Manager of the Office of Sustainability and Innovations
  • Crystal Campbell – former staff support to Environmental Council, Washtenaw County Racial Equity Office Program Manager
  • Andrew DeLeeuw – staff support to Environmental Council, Washtenaw County Director of Strategic Planning; and

WHEREAS, the selection committee developed a multi-part and comprehensive review and selection process intended to identify the proposal which would best meet the County’s needs and provide the best value to County residents, and this process was inclusive of response scoring, reference reviews, and interviews with the finalists; and
WHEREAS, Resource Recycling Systems (RRS) has been recommended by the Selection Committee as the preferred vendor to work with the County to complete the Washtenaw County Community and Organizational Climate Action Plan; and

WHEREAS, the RRS project team includes a diverse and complementary array of members who bring both significant knowledge about the local environment as well as deep experience and expertise in climate planning and engagement, including EcoWorks, Elevate, the Center for Neighborhood Technology, Wade Trim, and the American Society for Adaptation Professionals; and
WHEREAS, the RRS proposal thoroughly and thoughtfully addressed all how all components desired by the County would be created, and did so in a way that fully addressed and integrated all of major considerations and characteristics the County described in its request; and

WHEREAS, if the project described in the RRS proposal were to be approved and completed, it would deliver a technically and scientifically sound, ambitious but practicable, community and organizational climate action plan which would provide a path to meet the carbon neutrality goals established by the Board of Commissioners, inclusive of a meaningful community engagement process and attainable recommendations for implementation.

NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the Washtenaw County Environmental Council hereby accepts the recommendation of the Selection Committee to select Resource Recycling Systems as the preferred vendor to complete the Washtenaw County Community and Organizational Climate Action Plan.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Washtenaw County Environmental Counsel accepts and supports the project proposal developed by Resource Recycling Systems to develop a Washtenaw County Community and Organizational Climate Action Plan.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the Washtenaw County Environmental Council requests that this item be brought to the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners for their review and consideration at the next practicable meeting, and that the Board of Commissioners be asked to approve the project, allocate all remaining funding needed to develop this plan, amend the budget, and to authorize any other actions necessary to complete this work. (Source: https://civicclerk.blob.core.windows.net/stream/WASHTENAWCOMI/1bf93475-7b2c-4b60-be3d-fcb67851118d.pdf?sv=2015-12-11&sr=b&sig=YQUD4lR7rBSXPzGishgaM8kQLdEVbSmBOLKj%2BcGboC8%3D&st=2021-09-14T00%3A39%3A48Z&se=2022-09-14T00%3A44%3A48Z&sp=r&rscc=no-cache&rsct=application%2Fpdf)

Support for Climate Action in Washtenaw County

[2019] broughttwo climate strikes to Ann Arbor, joining aworldwide movement that served as the wake-up call for many that the climate crisis is here and will continue to exponentially worsen in the absence of concrete action.

University of Michigan (U-M) student andWashtenaw County Climate Strike participant Kristen Hayden says the strikes were important to shed light on environmental justice and shareresidents' demands for climate action at county institutions. "We hope to move forward the discourse on environment, race and injustice, and the fact that these things have been going on for hundreds of years," Hayden says.

So what is Washtenaw County doing in response to these cries for change?

In September [2020], the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously todeclare a climate emergency and called upon the region to mobilize quickly and eliminate greenhouse gases by 2035. Shortly after this resolution,Washtenaw County allocated $30,000 to speed up the development of its climate action plan.

Following the county's announcement,Ann Arbor declared a climate emergency and set a goal to become carbon neutral by 2030, andYpsilanti set its own carbon neutrality goal for 2035. This means decreased use of fossil fuels, using more clean energy resources, and offsetting carbon emissions to have a zero carbon footprint through proactive efforts.

While it may seem unlikely for Washtenaw County to make much of a difference in the overall fight against climate change, research has shown that successful local and state governments canreduce emissions by 37%. However, no concrete plans for these environmental goals have been shared yet. Both Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti have said action plans will be finalized and shared by Earth Day on April 22 this year.

Following its climate crisis declaration, Ann Arbor founded theA2Zero initiative to promote public engagement and partner with local organizations while drafting the city's action plan. Since November, A2Zero hassurveyed the community for feedback on policies or priorities the city should take into consideration.

Missy Stults, sustainability and innovations manager for the city of Ann Arbor, leads the charge for A2Zero and notes that significant momentum for environmental policy is now driving these goals into action.

"You can set an ambitious goal and figure out how you're going to achieve it," Stults says. "That's the approach we're taking."

Meanwhile, U-M is taking a more methodical approach to the climate crisis. In late 2018, U-M President Mark Schlisselcalled for a commission to investigate lowering U-M's carbon emissions and create scalable recommendations for other organizations and municipalities to model in the future.

Since the President's Commission on Carbon Neutrality (PCCN) was founded, the team has conducted interviews and consulted experts to review the university's practices. Throughout 2020, the commission will continue to consult with industry experts, share insights, and gather feedback from the public before presenting the recommendations to President Schlissel in December 2020.

PCCN co-chair Jennifer Haverkamp says community engagement has been an important part of the commission's process. PCCN has held town halls and discussion events for the public to learn about PCCN's work and the options for U-M to become a carbon-free university.

Part of the community engagement piece included theZell Lurie Institute's business pitch competition, where students were asked to address carbon neutrality in terms of dining, transportation, and energy consumption. Haverkamp says these ideas from students are helpful as the commission considers options that would be beneficial to the environment and the U-M community.

"We're going to find a whole large suite of ideas and figure out the tradeoffs among them," Haverkamp says. "We have to do all of this while still being true to the U-M's mission and be inclusive of students, faculty, and staff."

Stults represents the city of Ann Arbor as a PCCN commissioner. She says the commission is vital to Washtenaw County achieving its carbon-neutral goals, estimating that the university accounts for 30% of Ann Arbor's carbon emissions. Stults also recognizes the need for other local organizations in Washtenaw County to support this change and help identify solutions.

"They advocate and do things the city cannot do," Stults says. "They can be the extension of the message into the city and generators of new ideas."

One of many dedicated local organizations is theHuron River Watershed Council (HRWC), a participant in many local environmental partnerships, including A2Zero and theA2 Climate Partnership. HRWC has also researched and warned others of the impacts of climate change in Washtenaw County for years.

Some of HRWC's work includesvulnerability assessments of urban areas, where potential weather-related issues are identified so the city can prepare for the worst-case scenario. These assessments are used in city planning and budgeting, and can help cities reduce vulnerabilities to the impacts of high heat, extreme rainfall events, and other anticipated climate change impacts.

Rebecca Esselman, executive director of HRWC, says other research shows Washtenaw County will continue to see wetter wet seasons and drier dry seasons. Since 1950, Ann Arbor has measured over a 40% increase in precipitation, and national research shows Midwest precipitation rateswill increase up to 30% by the end of this century.

Esselman serves on the technical advisory committee on adaptation and resilience for A2Zero, and says it's crucial to focus on adaptation in the community so people aren't caught off guard with the myriad of changes needed to reach carbon neutrality. Esselman says another important consideration for environmental policy is equity, so policies don't adversely affect certain groups. "Cross-sector planning is really important," Esselman says. "We need to not think in isolation because some solutions may have cascading impacts we haven't thought of. The city of Ann Arbor has considered that important part of the project."

Looking ahead to the next step for Ann Arbor and the rest of Washtenaw County, Haverkamp says the most important role for the public to play in this environmental crisis is to hold government officials, whether local or federal, accountable.

"It's a problem that the federal government has stepped back from the role it was more actively playing (in addressing carbon emissions)," Haverkamp says. "The contributions from states and local governments are increasingly important for the U.S. to meet the Paris agreement. People should be holding elected officials to be better."

Esselman agrees that government accountability is important in this fight. She says actions taken by the city and county in the last five years have not been enough to address the crisis. However, she says the recent action prompted by stronger public support has been encouraging.

"We've seen huge ground covered in the last year," Esselman says. "The question of what is enough is a tricky one – it's hard to know what's enough these days. We're at a point in this crisis where the goals need to seem so ambitious they seem impossible, and then they need to be possible." (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.secondwavemedia.com/concentrate/features/climatecrisis0533.aspx)

Sue Shink

Sue has been working hard as your Washtenaw County Commissioner since January of 2019, working to support the quality of life in Washtenaw County for everyone. Sue serves as the Board Liaison to the Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation Commission, the Washtenaw County Road Commission, the Washtenaw Food Policy Council, the Coalition for the Remediation of Dioxane (CARD), and the Agricultural Lands Preservation Advisory Committee (ALPAC) as well as Southeast Michigan Works! and the Environmental Council.  She also serves as the Chair of The Board of Commissioners’ Working Session, where issues are discussed in great detail in a public forum.

Sue has succeeded in working with the WCRC to increase care for our roadsides, openness and communication.  The WCRC is now the first majority woman road commission in the state!  She has positively contributed to negotiations regarding the dioxane plume, and is working to achieve increased responsiveness from the State of Michigan. She continues to work hard to preserve agricultural and wild lands in Washtenaw County and is proud of efforts by Washtenaw County Parks and Recreation to increase diversity and access to our parks and programs.  Sue also leads the county’s efforts to reduce our carbon emissions and to prepare for weather related catastrophes.  During the COVID-19 crisis, Sue has worked closely with the Washtenaw County Health Department and residents to ensure the safety of our residents and businesses, whatever their needs, including greater access to testing, safety net services and support for local businesses.

Sue has been active in public service her whole life.  An attorney, mother and farmer, she brings a wide breadth of experience to the community.  Sue is a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School and has a masters degree in Resource Policy from the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment (now SEAS). 

Sue has served as a Northfield Township Trustee, on the Board of the Huron River Watershed Council, and is currently Chair of the Washtenaw County Agricultural Lands Preservation Advisory Committee (ALPAC), and past Chair of the Northfield Township Land Preservation Committee and on the Board of the Northfield Township Historical Society. She is a member of the Washtenaw County Bar Association. (Source: *directly quoted* https://www.votesueshink.com/about)


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and throughout the past few years, we've experienced all we need for most to recognize we are in a climate crisis. The planet is warming. We're seeing more significant weather events, and we're getting them more frequently. The science says we're close to the tipping point and must reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and do so now. I'm David Fair, and this is Issues of the Environment. You probably know the city of Ann Arbor is sent to an ambitious goal of becoming carbon neutral by the year 2030. Washtenaw County expects to have its county operations neutral by the same year. And the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners is working collaboratively to help get the rest of the county carbon neutral by 2035. Our guest this morning is Sue Shink, and she serves as chair of the Board of Commissioners. And thank you so much for making time today, Commissioner.

Sue Shink: Thank you. It's a pleasure to talk with you. 

David Fair: Another step forward has been taken. The board last week approved funding for a year-long planning process for creating the roadmap to carbon neutrality. How exactly is the 200,000 dollar allocation going to be spent? 

Sue Shink: We will hire at our next meeting. We passed one vote. Most actions concerning money take two votes--one three ways and means and then one at the full board. So I anticipate us hiring Resource Recycling Systems, which is a collaborative of several environmental climate organizations, to go out and talk to the community, working with county officials and county staff, understand what people are experiencing now, what needs they foresee, and then devising a roadmap, a plan, for us to move forward to address a couple of things. One, mitigation, which is the reduction of carbon emissions. And secondly, adaptation, which is getting ready for catastrophic climate change. So, we're going out to the people, and a lot of energy and time is going to be spent on that to understand exactly how they are experiencing weather and climate at this point in our community. 

David Fair: And of course, Ann Arbor has been on this path for a while now, as has the University of Michigan. So, do you imagine Resource Recycling Systems on behalf of the county working collaboratively with those to get things moving forward? 

Sue Shink: Absolutely. We already have been. In fact, Missy. Stults from Ann Arbor was part of the Environmental Council working to help us determine just what we would need in consultants to help us move this forward. So, she's been an integral part of this process, and I anticipate that that will continue. And we have also been in regular conversations with the universities, as well as other jurisdictions within Washtenaw County.

David Fair: This is Eighty-Nine one WEMU's issues of the Environment, and our climate conversation continues with Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners Chairperson Sue Shink and the guest star, her puppy. 2025 may seem like a long way off, but given the amount of work to be done, it's right around the corner. We know the costs are going to be exorbitant. How much of what we've experienced this summer alone with severe storms, flooding, power outages, and the like, should we take into account when considering the costs of not addressing these issues?

Sue Shink: Well, right. We know that the June rain event for which we declared a state of emergency cost at least three million dollars. Now, a lot of that is going to be reimbursed, in a sense, by FEMA. And we've also received some financial support from the state of Michigan. But in the end, those are all tax dollars. So, as a nation, we need to start preventing damage better. And as a community, we also know that we need to do that. And then last week, our Water Resources Commissioner, Evan Pratt, gave a presentation on rainfall anticipated because of climate change. Before a five or six inch rain event in a day was an anomaly, they've become very common. And it's at that level of rain, we see quite a bit of damage. The June events where that was a six inch rain in Ypsilanti, and it caused three million dollars worth of damage. By the end of this century, we can anticipate 15 inch rains. That is something we've never seen before in this community, and we are not ready for that. 

David Fair: Well, the city of Ann Arbor, as well as everybody else, knows it's all going to cost a lot of money. Ann Arbor is going to put a climate tax initiative before voters some point in 2022. Will the county have to put forth a similar measure to address these climate issues and the infrastructure that will be necessary to handle a 15 inch rain? 

Sue Shink: I would say we're not there yet. We've got to work on the plan first. We are looking at what measures we can take in the near term, but we're going to plan better for the future. The other thing I would say is just the same way that us funding the broadband task force set us up to be able to accept state grants and then also to allocate money to finish the broadband buildout across our county. Doing this climate plan is going to help set us up for state and federal grants that may be available probably in the near future. 

David Fair: Washtenaw County has a lot of varied interests and priorities as a whole and within individual communities. There are six cities, 20 townships, and two villages within our borders. Climate, for some, is not at the top of the priority list. How do you anticipating getting all of the various elected boards and councils to fully buy in to what the county is selling? 

Sue Shink: I think conversations. When we talk to people one-on-one, it becomes clear that climate is affecting their lives. So, if somebody lives out in the countryside, we know that there's a need right now to replace a number of those culverts. Farmers need their fields to drain, so that they can plant their crops. People in the city need the sanitary storm sewer not to back up into their basement. We are all experiencing higher rain events. And then, in the wintertime, we are also facing more extreme cold weather. I think really conversations are key to getting agreement on so many things, and it's never more true than here. 

David Fair: Once again, we're talking climate action with Sue Shink, the chair of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners. And I certainly don't have to tell you, this is a community that, in some very real ways, is one of haves and have nots. We know, without question, the public health impacts and economic impacts of climate change, of air and water pollution, more adversely affect the low income areas, as well as communities of color. What measures are going to be taking through this process to ensure environmental justice and equitable distribution of resources? 

Sue Shink: Thank you for that question. We put out in our RFP, and we are very committed to doubling down on communicating effectively with everybody in our community and particularly people who have oftentimes been left out of this conversation. So, our communities where people are struggling to make ends meet, people who are living in affordable housing, people who aren't always part of the decision-making process. And so, that was a huge part of hiring Resource Recycling Systems. And they have a very robust public engagement plan. But really, the most important thing is we need to go to those communities, go to those people, and make sure that they have a chance to say what are they experiencing now and what do they need. 

David Fair: As such, there will be 55 community meetings over the next year, at the end of which, a report will be submitted to the Board of Commissioners for deliberation and an action plan ultimately adopted. How quickly do you anticipate these meetings getting underway and the conversations to begin? 

Sue Shink: My understanding is that before the end of the year, there should be meetings underway.

David Fair: Accessibility to these meetings is one thing. Having meaningful input and impact on the outcomes of such meetings isn't always assured. How will the residents of our various communities feel comfortable that their voices will not only be considered, but valued and included? 

Sue Shink: So, one of the things that our consultants will be doing, and I should emphasize that we anticipate and plan for county staff and county-elected officials to participate in those meetings as well. We are going to have meetings through a variety of different ways. So, there will be some online meetings, some in-person meetings. There will probably be written materials put out. And then, after maybe a third of the meetings have happened, our consultant is going to come back and evaluate how effective have those meetings been? Have we reached enough voices, and do we want to change some things? So, there's going to be a process of self-evaluation to make sure that we're really engaging the community in the way that we have said is important to do so. 

David Fair: In very real ways, it feels as though we're at the dawn of building a new environmental and energy future. How do you feel about the weight of that responsibility? 

Sue Shink: I was one of the first students at what is now called M-SEAS, the School of Environmental Sustainability, through my master's thesis on sustainability. That was almost 30 years ago. So, I am really excited. This is quite a long time coming. 

David Fair: And it's new at all to you? 

Sue Shink: No, but it's one of those things where it's scary. Climate change is scary. We're talking about catastrophic climate change, right? So, really, people's communities being rendered unlivable, and we've already seen it happening out west and all around us. And so, we know that we need to act fast. We know that it might not be enough. But I can tell you, in the face of adversity, there is nothing that feels better to me personally than working toward a solution. And so, I feel really great and really excited about having us moving forward on this all too important issue. 

David Fair: Well, thank you for the time today. And we are going to have plenty of opportunities over the course of the next decade or two to talk about sustainability and building that new future. Thank you again for the time today. 

Sue Shink: Yes. Thank you for your interest. I really appreciate this conversation, and I hope you have a great day. 

David Fair: [That is Sue Shink. She is chair of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners and our guest on this week's edition of Issues of the Environment. This weekly series is produced in partnership with the office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner. And you hear it every Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this is Eighty-Nine one WEMU FM in WEMU HD, one Ypsilanti.

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Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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