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How Water Agencies Are Tackling Inequity

Millions of Americans lack safe, affordable drinking water. But more water agencies are developing equitable and inclusive approaches to water management, says the U.S. Water Alliance’s Radhika Fox.

Written by Radhika Fox Published on Read time Approx. 2 minutes
Irrigation water at a cotton field in Porterville, California, in August 2016. Agricultural fertilizers as well as cow manure from dairy farms have led to domestic wells in California’s Central Valley having dangerously high levels of nitrates – making it unsafe to drink.ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

Water is essential to everything we do – it shapes economic growth, the environment and the social fabric of our communities. Clean drinking water and properly treated wastewater are critical to public health, agriculture and huge portions of our economy. But access to safe, reliable and affordable water is unequally distributed across the country.

The high-quality water service that most Americans enjoy obscures the fact that millions of Americans don’t have reliable access to water. Some of those live in rural areas and tribal lands lacking the infrastructure to bring water to and from their homes. Other people live in more urban areas with a water service, but may be living with unsafe drinking water, so they opt for bottled water, which takes time out of their day and money out of their budget. Still others live in environmentally degraded communities, which can taint drinking water and limit recreation and other water uses that are important to quality of life.

In California alone, 200,000 people have chronically contaminated water and more than 1.5 million receive water from a system that has had a health violation in the past year. Communities most likely to experience water-related challenges tend already to be vulnerable and to face other economic and environmental burdens. Water stress holds them back from full participation in the economy, lowering productivity and competitiveness.

The good news is that progress is happening on multiple fronts to address these inequities. A range of stakeholders are pioneering equitable and inclusive approaches to water management. To capture the wide array of projects in that arena, the U.S. Water Alliance released a two-pronged initiative this year called An Equitable Water Future. First, a paper was released in early summer that laid out both the problems and the solutions worth studying. The paper found that there are many promising practices being developed around the country, from water affordability policies to inclusive workforce development programs to community climate planning.

Second, the Alliance just released an online clearinghouse that includes case studies of more than 150 equity-focused water projects for users to explore.

There are a variety of different ways in which groups are making water more equitable:

  • Utilities are implementing low-income assistance programs and workforce development strategies, as well as utilizing capital projects to foster neighborhood revitalization. For example, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission adopted an environmental justice and community benefits policy to ensure that their work creates opportunity for vulnerable communities.
  • Community-based organizations are building local capacity to engage in water planning and policymaking, nurturing a new generation of leaders. In California’s Central Valley, the Community Water Center works with communities to advocate for safe drinking water.
  • Environmental organizations are incorporating community considerations into their ecological work.
  • A growing number of philanthropic organizations are bringing equitable water strategies into their investment portfolios.
  • Research institutions are partnering with communities to shine a light on the complex interconnections between water, climate and socioeconomic vulnerability.

The U.S. Water Alliance believes there is so much potential to make great strides toward a more equitable water future, and it is truly one of the most important issues of our time. Seeing communities struggle to go even a day without safe, reliable drinking water is unacceptable. We need to come together and learn from the great work that so many communities are already doing so we can build stronger, reliable, affordable and accessible water systems for all.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.

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