May 20, 2021 - From the May, 2021 issue

‘The Time is Now’: Natural Resources Undersecretary Angela Barranco on Multi-Benefit Infrastructure Investments

Ahead of her keynote address at USGBC-LA’s 20th annual Municipal Green Building Conference and ExpoTPR interviewed Angela Barranco, undersecretary at the California Natural Resources Agency to share how California, and especially Los Angeles, is leveraging resources to maximize state and federal investments in local climate resilience and multi-benefit infrastructure. The former CEO of River LA highlights the physical, mental, and public health benefits of open space in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and state efforts to ensure equitable access to disadvantaged communities across California. Click here to register for MGBCE, May 21-22.

Angela Barranco

"It's really about challenging ourselves to not simply maximize for this thing or that thing, but we really have to think about transportation corridors as biodiversity corridors, water infrastructure as potential open space, and all the different ways that we can really maximize that. "—Angela Barranco

Undersecretary, you were appointed to your position at the Natural Resources Agency by Governor Newsom in May of 2019 with a mission to restore, protect, and manage the state's natural historical and cultural resources for both current and future generations. With the theme of USGBC-LA’s upcoming Municipal Green Building Conference & Expo being “The Time is Now,” how has the pandemic impacted the Agency’s and your priorities and mission-driven work?

Angela Barranco: It was an amazing moment to be here and settle into what we thought were some great priorities for our agency. We have 21,000 employees; 26 boards, conservancies, and departments; and we have a mission that spans so much incredible work—fire, water, fish and wildlife, and state parks.

We spent a good amount of time prioritizing in our minds three major priorities: fighting climate change, tackling the biodiversity crisis, and increasing equitable outdoor access for all, and then COVID hit, and it was just a full re-thinking of everything we were doing.

What's wonderful about our work is that it does continue to be just as relevant. In the last year and a half that we've addressed COVID, we've actually gone forward with these priorities in really significant ways, but I would say we picked up a couple of extra ones. We have CalFire as part of our team and so, especially at the beginning, a lot of our teammates were out there on the frontlines helping with emergency response, and now they're helping distribute vaccines.

At the time, we thought that much of our work wasn't as important as health care, but then all of a sudden, when you shut down every recreational opportunity, the parks become the place to be. So, it also elevated the incredible importance of access to the outdoors. We already thought it was important, but all of a sudden it was so stark who had a park and who didn't have a park; who had access, and who had to travel? We've got beautiful parks, but there's a lot of LA that doesn't have access locally.

What changed and accelerated some really interesting stuff was modernization of state government. We have just transformed, especially at the Natural Resources Agency, our approach to doing work both internally, but also externally. Allowing people to telework was something that was very much seen as a perk or a luxury for many. It wasn't considered a regular way of doing business in much of the private sector, let alone the public sector. The more efficient you can make government, the more you can get done and the better you're spending taxpayer dollars, but also you attract and retain the future workforce because you're able to bring additional flexibility. We can have a public meeting and people can participate from anywhere in the state—you don't have to just show up at an auditorium on one day at 4 p.m.

Prior to your appointment to the Natural Resources Agency, you were Chief Executive Officer of River LA.  Elaborate on the challenges of the River’s water infrastructure; and, on how your advocacy impacts the way you now both frame water issues and prioritize your work?

I entered my experience at the LA River in a more traditional space doing some great environmental work with the community. After spending almost three years thinking through that problem, I emerged as a very different advocate in some ways for the project. I really saw it as an opportunity to knit this mosaic of communities together through infrastructure and environment while being respectful of the community input that needed to be a part of it.

The opportunity to me just grew as I unpeeled the layers of what the LA River can be—between water, biodiversity, and the biodiversity corridors, even the scale of just the open space and parks opportunities is so enormous. But then, to see how difficult it is to sell that vision uniformly so that people can actually make decisions was rather brutal. If everybody agrees it's a good idea, why can't we agree to move forward? Then thinking about who has felt traditionally disenfranchised in this process or how have past processes not really told people what they're doing. They say one thing and they're doing another. Even the folks who were on the same side could not come to terms of some of this conflict. For me, in leaving that hotbed of advocacy, it really made me appreciate that the state has a really important role to play in convening and bringing people together.

First and foremost, we come with funding, expertise, and infrastructure, so let's leverage some of those things to help people come together. Second, let's break down some of these barriers for multi-benefit projects. Right now, there are so many different funding streams. If I'm going to fund a water, green space, or transportation project, these are all multi-benefit spaces, but the funding doesn't work that way, so I've been actively thinking with my colleagues about how we break down those barriers.

 I've been working on the Outdoor Access for All program very closely and really spending some time thinking about what it means to bring open space to communities and how do you have that process feel good? You don't want that process to go top-down, it should actually be coming from the community as sort of a co-creative project. Then, thinking about transportation and infrastructure and other rights of way, how can we break down the barrier—whether it's regulatory or funding—to be able to use those spaces to their maximum benefit?

I'm still unpacking that experience because the LA River is so charged. It really revealed to me so many of the more complicated currents that played underneath the advocacy but are easily resolvable. The LA River is sort of stuck in many ways because these currents are so strong.

At the time you began at the Natural Resources Agency, there was a perception that the agency was, especially about water, really decentralizing the State’s responsibilities and placing much of the burden on locals and regions to address their water supply issues. Was/Is that perception accurate?

The water question is one of the more challenging ones because of perception. One of the big things that Secretary Crowfoot did in those first few months was to create the state water portfolio so that we could, as a state, wrap our arms around all the different levers that we need to address and be a part of. I hear you and that could feel decentralizing a little bit, but I think the intention was for the state to really come to the table in a concrete way that required a two-way conversation but also a two-way commitment.

That was a difficult negotiation and conversation, but now we have something. There's a plan to implement and to work together on, and I think that's a huge step forward for such a complex issue. It feels a little bit more transparent now, and my hope is that it connects people much more to the process in a way that feels tangible and accessible.

Likewise on land use, the state appears, similarly, to support efforts to utilize (densify) its surplus properties— which are potential open spaces—for affordable housing. How do you reconcile equitable access by the pubic to open space with new state mandates in increase urban housing density?

Well, the state doesn't determine land use; it's very much a local issue. We are partners to our local governments who are making these very tough decisions, but I do think that the pathway forward is that the highest and best use is both. When you're working in such a dense place, you really do need to think of every parcel as multi-benefit. It's really about challenging ourselves to not simply maximize for this thing or that thing, but we really have to think about transportation corridors as biodiversity corridors, water infrastructure as potential open space, and all the different ways that we can really maximize that. It's the same for housing, you're not going to build 100 percent on any lot, so how can you maximize that space to also include outdoor benefits that we know have quantifiable public health benefits.

Housing is extremely important and it's a huge priority, but the access to open space reduces mental and physical health burdens of communities in disadvantaged areas measurably, so we should really take it seriously as part of our planning and building processes.

There's a potential green windfall for state and local coffers from the Biden administration focused on jobs, infrastructure, and economic recovery investments. What does the green recovery look like from your position at Natural Resources?


I don't know if you saw the announcement about $12 billion in direct cash payments due to the state surplus, but I know we always say it, but California is like a nation state, so the federal government is truly a partner. We bring to the table such significant resources that I think we are absolutely central to a conversation in D.C. as much as it is in Sacramento. We've put $12 billion on the table and that should go a long way to the conversation that's happening right now in D.C.

I can't really speak to the D.C. politics these days, and I know that Congress is in a different place than perhaps our legislature in terms of these investments, but I think we have a really strong story to tell about how we are investing in our infrastructure; we're investing in our communities; we're investing in our people.

As much as the federal government can meet us there, we're ready to participate. One small example is that we put a lot of money as a state into the pandemic response, but FEMA was able to come back and has delivered billions to us as part of their recovery effort there too. I think there's still a lot of hurdles to jump at the federal level, but I think we have a very strong case to make as a state that we're a good investment for those dollars.

TPR has recently published a number of interviews on One Water/One Infrastructure with, for example, Streets LA’s Adel Hagekhalil, on trying to set a paradigm for multi-benefit infrastructure investments. Talk about whether that's the mantra for the state and whether that has a chance of being a mantra for the nation.

The investments that LA County residents have made in themselves by passing those measures is not to be undervalued or underestimated. When you're at the local level, folks don't even think about the potential to leverage those dollars to have a conversation with your state and federal partners. What is tremendous about LA County right now is that we do have real funding on the table and really smart planning processes.

I can point to the LA River Master Plan draft that's come out, and how the county is really tending to that planning side. They're thinking about what to prioritize and what the outcomes would be; there's a pot of money ready to go and community support that's being built around it.

There was just $5 billion announced yesterday for water infrastructure from the state side, but LA is right up there in terms of priority for me. It's huge for the city, the county, and the state to come together.

Many outside the Bay Area view the Newsom administration as San Francisco-centric, and that while Southern California may have the votes, its interest don’t often have a seat at the table in the governor's office. As someone who has been an LA resident and River advocate but is now in the “room where it happens,” does the Governor have enough input from Southern and Inland California?

He's a former mayor of San Francisco and obviously many folks in Sacramento are from this area. I think the perception, at least in LA, was that we've got population down here and that we're at the center of everything as well and we have to advocate for it.

What I have found in my two years here is how passionate people are for really serving the entire state. What Southern California benefits from as well as is the tremendous story that it can tell in terms of its investment. In LA County and LA City, we've decided to tax ourselves to make our priorities happen and that's a huge deal. It shows a huge commitment and it also means a lot to the state.

I think Southern California, and especially the LA region, is top priority and that's where the greatest need is for many of these issues, like parks and population in terms of water. Even a little bit of a difference that you can make in terms of water usage in LA makes a huge difference statewide. The opportunity to leverage all the changes in LA in favor of the state is really big and that's something shared by all of us. I reassure you all, we care about LA.

The governor recently issued emergency drought orders for many counties in California; these new orders follow the publishing last year of the Water Resilience Portfolio Initiative. Elaborate on how the governor and the agency actually plan to make California more resilient to drought (and the fire hazards that come with drought).

I would point to the $5 billion of investments for water infrastructure, storage, capture, community support, and all sorts of emergency solutions for drinking water, which has a lot of thoughtfulness in terms of all the different ways that you could tackle drought. Same with wildfire. We announced an equally large package for wildfire. It is an active place that we are really prioritizing in terms of our funding, but also our attention and really thinking about how to do this.

The biggest challenge is climate change. With the fire, the drought, and the impact that we're seeing in communities across the state, there's only so much we can do when we are tackling as large of a problem as climate change.

Many of these issues and many of these programs are trying to do both. Create spaces where we can do firebreaks, as an example, and really investing in those early projects for creating fire resilience across the state, and making sure that we're doing it ahead of fire season. Emergency funding just came out to make sure those projects start now, and we're not waiting for fire season.

The truth is that climate change is so severely and dramatically changing the patterns of water and vegetation that it's going to be very challenging to tackle. Part of me has to be realistic. Even with $5 billion in investment, it's going to be tough, and we're going to continue in a situation where we will be monitoring very closely and also having to respond to some potentially dangerous situations. I think we’re up for it and, if I think of anyone I'm going to trust, it's going to be CalFire and the drought team; we're on it.

We do this interview as the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California selects a new GM to succeed after 15 years, Jeff Kightlinger. What ought to drive their selection? What difference does it make to you and Natural Resources what priorities Met has for water infrastructure investments?

What comes to mind is the partnership opportunity. The water space is exceptionally complicated and Met plays a really tremendous role in that. What can we do under the leadership or new vision of someone to really double down on that partnership? While there will always be places where we don't agree, there are even more places that we can come together. The need is growing so great between potential droughts and climate change, there's factors outside of our willingness to work together that are really impacting what is happening. A second priority is equity and thinking about how we truly use all of these opportunities, programs, funding, and infrastructure dollars to really improve the lives of all the people who we serve.


© 2024 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.