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Issues of the Environment: 'Resilient Washtenaw' climate action plan getting ready for launch

Andrew DeLeeuw
Randy Mascharka

Washtenaw County is launching its "Resilient Washtenaw" climate action plan. The goal is to get county operations to carbon neutrality by 2030 and communitywide carbon neutrality by 2035. Washtenaw County director of strategic planning, Andrew DeLeeuw, joined WEMU’s David Fair to cover what will happen in 2022 and what it will take to achieve these ambitious goals.


  • January 2022 marks the beginning of a yearlong planning process for Washtenaw County’s Climate Action Plan, known as "Resilient Washtenaw." Ann Arbor-based environmental consulting firm Resource Recycling Systems is soliciting input from county residents, and plans to hold 55 community meetings this year. Listening sessions will be held in each of the county’s districts, and input can also be submitted through an online map. A timeline of events can be viewed here.

  • The Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved a resolution last fall to allocate funds to climate action planning efforts. Per a contract, Resource Recycling Systems is assisting in the development of a comprehensive, innovative, and accessible climate action plan for Washtenaw County, as a community and as an organization.  (Source: https://www.washtenaw.org/CivicAlerts.aspx?AID=1849)

  • Washtenaw County acknowledges that because the county’s organizational greenhouse gas emissions account for .2% of the total, residential input is vital in developing a stepwise plan for reductions. After a plan is made it will need approval by the Board of Commissioners Consideration, followed by modifications to County Policy, programming, and planning, and coordination with efforts outlined other climate and sustainability plans, including A2Zero and other local governments. 

  • The county has taken steps to reduce the carbon footprint of its buildings by replacing all fixtures with LED lights, potentially reducing the county government’s carbon emissions by 30%.

  • The plan will also include:
    • Climate Information of the County: history, current conditions, evolving trends, future projections
    • Greenhouse Gas Inventory: the sources and causes of the emissions from the county, and projections of future emissions based on growth and technology changes
    • Vulnerability Assessment: identification of the people and places most at risk from climate change in our county
    • Strategies and Actions: the specific things that will be done to reach net zero emissions
    • Implementation Recommendations: staffing, financing, reporting, and governance

  • Resilient Washtenaw aims to make the county’s operations carbon neutrality goal by 2030, reach community-wide carbon neutrality by 2035. A final draft of the plan is expected in November 2022. https://www.resilientwashtenaw.org


David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and welcome to our first new edition of Issues of the Environment for 2022. I'm David Fair, and as some things remain the same from 2021, there is change on some fronts and more to come. Climate change remains in a state of crisis, but more work is being done at all levels to better address it, including here in Washtenaw County. A program called Resilient Washtenaw aims to make county operations carbon neutral by the year 2030 and to achieve total community carbon neutrality by 2035. So, a plan is now being drafted, formulated, and is expected to be issued in November of this year. Our guest today is in the middle of all of it. Andrew DeLeeuw is Washtenaw County's director of strategic planning, and thank you for the time today, Andrew. I appreciate it. 

Andrew DeLeeuw: Good morning, David, happy to be here, and thank you for taking the time to learn about Resilient Washtenaw. 

David Fair: Well, and I want to step back for a moment, because it's been some time since we talked about it. But it was last fall the county board voted to hire the Ann Arbor-based Resource Recycling Systems to gather the public input and work with county officials to, as I mentioned, formulate and finalize and implement a plan to achieve carbon neutrality. What has happened from the point of hire to where we are today? 

Andrew DeLeeuw: Well, we've really been putting the pieces in place to begin a very strong community engagement process very since the beginning of the county's discussions about what we're going to do to address carbon neutrality and take climate action. We've really put the desires and concerns of the public at the center of that process. As you mentioned, the board considered and approved this project last fall. We've got a fantastic group working with us on this project with us and that group during that time has really been helping us shape that engagement process. 

David Fair: And that process is going to include 55 community meetings over the next several months to gather the input. Has it been determined how those meetings will be structured to garner the kind of specific input you want to adequately develop the action plan? 

Andrew DeLeeuw: Yeah. So, on the 55 meetings, that includes both a combination of meetings with the public and inside of the organization. Our plan goals address both the county as an organization and then also the county as a government that's serving the public. And so, not all of those 55 meetings will be with the public, but we'll probably make up for more than that in terms of who we're talking to over the course of this project. We do have a plan put in place for how we're going to use those meetings. I think it's subject to change as we talk with folks and get input in terms of, you know, again, what they care about and what they want the county to address. At this point, it's really trying to make sure that we're reaching all corners of the county and talking not only with a lot of the groups that we're fortunate to have in the county who care a lot about climate change, but also other people who might be experiencing the effects of climate change, but who haven't yet participated in that discussion. 

David Fair: I would imagine that we had hoped, by this point, we would be endemic, but we're still pandemic. So, many of these to start anyway, probably going to be via Zoom and online? 

Andrew DeLeeuw: Yeah, that's correct. We're taking a bit of a silver lining approach to that. It does make it more convenient for people to attend. You lose a little bit in the personal interaction with that. But I think, for the COVID reasons, we are planning to be remote for the time being, but we'll keep an eye on that. And if things change, and if there becomes a point when we're able to do it safely in person, we'll certainly be considering that. 

David Fair: Our conversation with Washtenaw County Director of Strategic Planning Andrew DeLeeuw continues on WEMU's Issues of the Environment. Now, Andrew, 2030 may seem like a long way away as we speak today, but when we consider all that is going to take to get county operations to carbon neutrality, it probably feels to you like it's right around the corner. As we reflect on the past five or 10 years, do we have noticeable gains that have been made toward the end of carbon neutrality? 

Andrew DeLeeuw: Yeah. And, certainly, I'd agree with your sentiment that 2030 is close for the organizational goal. And I think, you know, the goal that I am more concerned about is the 2035 goal. And so, to what we've been doing at the county level, we have been taking incremental steps. Last year, the board approved a really significant project that's expected to reduce the county's electricity use by about a third and save us quite a bit of money through the replacement of all of our interior lighting fixtures and looking to get those be a little bit smarter in terms of how they operate. But we've got more work to do in terms of how we heat our buildings--you know, the size of the county's fleet. That said, you know, the county's organizational footprint is pretty tiny compared to everything that happens inside of the county. And that's, you know, we're trying through our planning process to address both of those because we think it's important for the county to be a leader through example, but also, you know, again, they're going to be responsible to the public. The 2035 goal--and if I may just speak to that a minute--it is really going to require the county to think differently in terms of how we work with the people who live here and how we address climate change. I think we all have a stake in this, and there's a common interest in us being able to sort out climate change together. But being able to think through the county's role in that, the role of other local units of government, the role of the public and other institutions we've got is going to really be something that we need to think a lot about through our planning process.

David Fair: So, as we look at 2035, getting buy-in from residential and business in full participation is essential to success. From your seat at the strategic planning table, what's the best way to get buy-in? 

Andrew DeLeeuw: Yeah. Well, we're working through that. I think we want to meet people where they are. And again, we know a lot of folks in our community have directly been harmed by climate change. I think back to the flooding events of last summer when, you know, the governor and, in turn, President Biden declared a state of emergency. The flooding that we experienced, I think, was due to the heavy rain events. And so, thinking about those types of events going forward and how there may be other types of events like that that are worrying and that are affecting the people who live in Washtenaw County is where we're starting. And, again, we want our plan to be really focused on and what people are worried about, and we want to make sure that the county is doing its work to make sure that that continues in the future and that climate change doesn't really change that. 

David Fair: So, you've touched on it, but we haven't addressed it specifically. So, I'm going to go in that direction. We know that people of color and people in the lower economic strata are more dramatically impacted by environmental hazards and, too frequently, are left to hold the bag for more affluent parts of our area when it comes to conditions and outcomes. So, what role will environmental justice and improving these outcomes play in the county's final plan?

Andrew DeLeeuw: Yes, you're correct. And we are aware of that, and we're trying to make sure that our planning process puts those concerns at the front and center in terms of what the county does to address climate action. One way in which we've done that has been through the inclusion of the county's racial equity office in our planning process, and they've been there from the very beginning, both in terms of, you know, the type of plan we were looking to see who we hired to do this work, how we've been engaging the public and the organization. And they'll be there through the very--well, not to the end--but through the delivery of the plan to the Board of Commissioners. The other item I would point to in our planning efforts is the inclusion of a vulnerability assessment in our plan. This is something that we've asked for as a means to really try and identify the parts of our county that are most at risk from climate change. And, you know, with that as a part of the study, our goal is to think that we know that people who are most at risk, how are we making sure that the programs and the projects that we put into place are really addressed at those specific issues. This goes hand-in-hand with the county's approach to service delivery generally and that, you know, we work with folks in the community who really need our services and want to make sure that our climate plan is reflective of that same approach. 

David Fair: Once again, this is WEMU. We're talking climate action plans with Andrew DeLeeuw. Andrew is Washtenaw County's director of strategic planning. All of this is going to be very expensive. And, of course, when we talk about helping those most in need, there's going to have to be some subsidy. What is the outlook given the current budget situation at the federal and state levels and what we're facing in the county in the midst of a pandemic? What is the outlook for being able to generate the kind of money that will be necessary to make this plan a success? 

Andrew DeLeeuw: Yeah, I think you're right. We've got several examples locally of benchmarks for what it takes to do this type of work. I'd also like to offer, though, that, you know, there is significant funding that goes into the types of things that we need to be thinking about through climate change. And so, we're not only hoping to find new money, but rather to think about how are we using this current spending that we're doing and incorporating our considerations of climate change into that. That said, you know, I think that's not going to be enough. And so, very practically, as a part of our planning process, we're trying to consider, you know, that very specific question. You know, not just will it take money, but it's going to take people, and it's going to take partnerships, and we're going to need to be able to understand how successful we're doing with all this. And so, to that end, we're trying to really make sure that we're thinking through the things needed to implement the plan right now. Again, we've got a very tight timeline because of the urgency of the climate situation. And so, we don't want to lose more time once we have the plan in place, figuring out how we're going to do it. Certainly, we're in a better financial position now, I think, than we expected at the start of the pandemic. There is a lot of uncertainty at all levels of government in terms of how that would shake out. I think, right now, we are seeing a lot of acknowledgment at the federal and state levels in terms of the importance of addressing climate change and the opportunity that investment in preparing for climate change can give us. So, I think we're hopeful for support at the federal and state levels, but we'll also be looking to think about, at the local level, what types of resources are available and necessary to deliver on this plan and how we might be able to incorporate the plan into the other spending that we're already doing.

David Fair: Well, for those who want to find out more and find out how best to connect through the community engagement process, simply go to our website at WEMU dot org. Andrew, thank you so much for the time today, and we'll plan on staying in touch throughout the process. 

Andrew DeLeeuw: Thank you so much for your time, David. This has been fantastic. And I look forward to hearing from the public as we continue our planning process. 

David Fair: That is Washtenaw County director of strategic planning Andrew DeLeeuw. Again, for more information, go to WEMU dot org. Issues of the Environment. It's 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 89 one WEMU FM and WEMU HD One Ypsilanti. 

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu

Contact David: dfair@emich.edu
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