Water Equity Is Finally Getting its Moment
What do you think of when you hear the term “water equity”?
When I explain my work in the water equity and climate justice field to friends, family, and people working in any other sector, the common response often sounds something like “You mean investing in water resources?” Until the concepts of racial and social equity entered the mainstream, most people connected the term “equity” to financial investments. And although investing in water infrastructure is one of the most effective solutions to our nation’s water equity challenge, the definition of water equity I’m actually referring to is best summed up in the following definition from the US Water Alliance,
“Water equity occurs when all communities have:
- access to safe, clean, affordable drinking water and wastewater services;
- are resilient in the face of floods, drought, and other climate risks;
- have a role in decision-making processes for water management in their communities;
- share in the economic, social, and environmental benefits of water systems.”
In recent years, water equity issues regarding broad and fair access to safe, clean water in a community have come into sharper focus, particularly after water problems like those in Flint, Michigan and Jackson, Mississippi made their way into the headlines. Unfortunately, these stories are just a small glimpse into this pervasive issue, which is impacting many more communities than we realize.
According to a recent study by the Alliance, more than two million people in the U.S. live without access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation, and water access issues disproportionately impact lower income people, people of color, undocumented immigrants and people who do not speak English. Structural inequalities that reduce access to education, income, public safety, employment, housing, transportation and other social services also undermine water equity.
While water resource challenges are affecting communities already overburdened with economic, environmental, and health challenges first and worst, the impacts will undoubtedly be felt by all Americans unless action is taken today.
So how can we address water equity?
The study referenced above includes a helpful framework to address these challenges and how we might advance water equity in America. The framework is organized around three pillars of action:
1) Ensure all people have access to clean, safe, affordable water services.
2) Maximize the community and economic benefits of water infrastructure investment.
3) Foster community resilience amidst a changing climate.
The first and most effective way we can take action is through equitable infrastructure investment.
Many communities across the U.S. are served by outdated water infrastructure systems, some more than 100 years old. In the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) most recent assessment, they evaluated the need to invest over $740 billion to maintain and repair our water infrastructure just to meet current environmental and health standards.
Thankfully, Congress acknowledged the nation’s dire need for increased water infrastructure investments and signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) into legislation in early 2021. IIJA, also referred to as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), provides over $50 billion for water infrastructure alone, the largest federal investment in water infrastructure in 50 years. This legislation provides the water sector with a path to re-envision the power and possibilities of infrastructure investments, an opportunity to embrace a new culture of transformational investments and projects and a chance to center water equity, climate action, economic opportunity, and One Water, a concept accepted across utilities and water management organizations, that envisions managing all water in an integrated, inclusive and sustainable manner, across all water infrastructure and capital projects.
In November of this year, the US EPA launched a new initiative to help disadvantaged and underserved communities prepare for and access BIL funding to identify their water infrastructure needs, plan and design infrastructure projects, and apply for State Revolving Fund (SRF) funding. This initiative will be implemented by national organizations and entities that understand the need for a more holistic approach to our water management problems. Funding will be provided to projects and partners across the country that provide technical and community engagement assistance in areas of the country that lack capacity. By recognizing the critical role of stakeholders who are not traditionally invited to the water management conversation, the EPA is highlighting the importance of collaborative solutions that will allow water systems to evolve and adapt to the changing climate with equitable outcomes.
Through this $150 million investment in underserved and overburdened communities across rural, suburban, and urban areas, including Tribal reservations, the EPA and its technical and outreach assistance program partners are laying the foundation for more community leaders to develop their own solutions to disparities in water infrastructure investments.
By Nahal G. Ipakchi, Senior Director at Kearns & West and benefyd water advisor