Integrating Climate Change Adaptation into Local Planning: New Water Resources Element Guidance

Planning Assistance in Action 

by Jason Dubow, CC-P, Manager, Resource Conservation and Management and Matthew Rowe, Assistant Director, Water and Science Administration, Maryland Department of Planning 

Note: this article was originally published in the Maryland Municipal League’s September/October online magazine, Municipal Maryland

Fig 1 – Photo of sign warning fisherman of rising waters.

To protect private property, public health, government infrastructure and local environmental resources, municipalities should take steps to study the expected impacts of climate change. Those steps should include identifying vulnerable areas, populations, and assets to develop strategies to avoid or lessen those impacts.

As discussed in the most recent annual report of the Maryland Commission on Climate Change, extreme weather events, such as droughts and severe storms, have been increasing in frequency and cost in Maryland since the 1980s and are in part attributed to a changing climate.  

The report notes that the effects of accelerated sea-level rise in Maryland are already apparent, including shoreline erosion, deterioration of tidal wetlands, and salinization of low-lying farm fields.  

Nuisance flooding (also referred to as high tide flooding) that occurred just a very few days per year in Annapolis in the 1950s now occurs forty or more days per year.  

Storm surges from tropical storms and Nor’easters also spread farther and higher, adding to the higher sea level. 

Given that many climate change impacts are water related, one place to begin is for municipalities to incorporate climate change adaptation into the Water Resources Element (WRE) of their local comprehensive plan. The WRE is designed to ensure that local plans for growth and development can be supported, given the limitations of local water resources, as well as the constraints of local water, sewer, and stormwater infrastructure.  

In 2020, the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Maryland Department of Planning (Planning) convened a team to update the state’s 2007 WRE Guidelines to incorporate climate change adaptation.   

After identifying needed changes and developing a preliminary draft of the updated guidelines in fall 2021, several county and municipal planning agencies were asked to review and provide feedback on the draft changes. Their comments recommended more clarity regarding state expectations and the extent and availability of state assistance. The agencies revised the draft update to reflect that input. 

MDE and Planning then jointly published a new web-based guide, the 2022 Proposed WRE Guidance Update, in December 2021. This guide provides local planners with information about best practices for conducting analyses and approaches for ensuring Maryland’s waters are protected as the local land use plan is developed and implemented, reflecting changes to MDE water resources programs over the past decade, and for integrating climate change considerations, particularly flooding risks, into the drinking water, wastewater, and stormwater assessments of the WRE.  

In addition to integrating climate change considerations throughout the WRE development process, the 2022 Proposed WRE Guidance Update includes changes to replace the nonpoint source loading analysis of the stormwater assessment portion of the 2007 guidelines. The detailed drinking water assessment and wastewater assessment portions of the 2007 WRE guidelines will remain intact and should still be followed.   

In 2022, MDE and Planning staff are hosting monthly webinars and promoting other agency webinar series, including those available from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Creating Water Resilient Utilities (CRWU) initiative. These webinars will train local governments on incorporating climate change into local planning and to identify, discuss and implement improvements to the draft 2022 Proposed WRE Guidance Update, with the goal of finalizing the update by the end of 2022.  

Whether municipalities choose to focus on water resources first or focus on other community assets, there are several general steps to get started. First, convene staff from the emergency management, public works, planning and environmental departments to discuss flooding and other current climate-related hazards. This can result in an inventory of issues, organized by geography, population, and assets. Next, the municipality can identify and analyze available projections of different climate change impacts expected for the region and, where available, specific to the municipality.  

Where information gaps exist, the municipality should identify those as well. Using the inventory and available projections, the municipality can identify specific properties, populations, environmental resources, and infrastructure which may be vulnerable to climate change impacts.  

As local plans, zoning and capital projects are developed, local governments can incorporate knowledge of climate change impacts by creating strategies to avoid or lessen impacts such as raising the elevation of critical infrastructure in flood-prone areas.  

For more information about the WRE Guidance, please contact Jason Dubow, Manager, Resource Conservation and Management, at or (410) 767-3370, or Matthew Rowe, Assistant Director, Water and Science Administration, at or (410) 537-3578. For more information on climate change adaptation, visit DNR’s Climate Change in Maryland webpage, go to the following link, and for more information on the Maryland Commission on Climate Change, click here. 

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