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An Equitable Water Future: A National Briefing Paper

Posted by Content Coordinator on Friday, June 9th, 2017



Water is the defining issue of our time—it has been steadily rising as a top-of-mind concern for community, business, and political leaders across the globe. In fact, the World Economic Forum identifies water crises as one of the greatest risks we face in this decade. Water shapes economic growth, the environment, and the very social fabric of our communities. Ensuring that all people have access to safe, reliable, and affordable water and wastewater systems is the cornerstone of a sustainable and prosperous nation.

This national briefing paper examines the interconnections between water management and vulnerable communities in the United States. Too often, when we think of vulnerable communities that struggle with water-related challenges, we think of places like sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and other developing regions. The overall high quality of water systems in America—one of our most monumental achievements as a nation—obscures the fact that water challenges are a daily reality for some communities.

All people need access to the basics—water, food, shelter— in order to participate fully in society. When these basic conditions are met, our communities and our economy thrive. Water systems that do not deliver clean, affordable water to all people can exacerbate inequality and undermine our nation’s future prosperity. Vulnerable communities that face various forms of water stress are held back from full participation in the economy, lowering productivity and competitiveness. Moreover, as water utilities work to fund the maintenance and operations of their systems, they need financially stable ratepayers.

The good news is that progress is happening on multiple fronts. A range of stakeholders are pioneering equitable and inclusive approaches to water management. Public and private utilities are implementing low-income assistance programs and workforce development strategies, as well as utilizing capital projects to foster neighborhood revitalization. Community-based organizations are building local capacity to engage in water planning and policy making, nurturing a new generation of leaders. 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. Businesses are engaging in efforts to restore watersheds and enrich the communities in which they operate. Investors are redefining risk and considering the resilience of communities when contemplating infrastructure investments. Research institutions are partnering with communities to shine a light on the complex interconnections between water, climate, and socioeconomic vulnerability.

The US Water Alliance developed this briefing paper to expand national understanding of the water-related challenges that vulnerable communities face. This paper is inspired and informed by the contributions of diverse stakeholders—utility managers, policymakers, community leaders, advocacy coalitions, direct service providers, and more. It spotlights the promising practices that have emerged to make water systems more equitable, and offers recommendations for their implementation. The audiences we address and the scope of topics we tackle in this paper are intentionally broad. At the US Water Alliance, we believe that all stakeholders have a vital role to play in securing an equitable water future for all.

The report is organized in the following manner:

  • Part One: Water Stress and Vulnerable Communities describes the critical challenges facing the water sector and how they impact vulnerable communities; and
  • Part Two: The Pillars of Water Equity describes promising practices and strategies in three key arenas showcasing the diverse ways that organizations can advance water equity in the US.


Water Stress and Vulnerable Communities

As a nation, we face multiple water resource challenges. Despite recent rainfall, water scarcity is widespread in California, where more than one million people lack access to safe and reliable drinking water. Across the Midwest, Northeast, and Southeast, flooding and extreme weather damage homes and communities. We have seen recent water quality challenges, such as the algal bloom in Lake Erie that affected half a million people in Toledo, Ohio, or the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan, that endangered 90,000 people.1 Our water infrastructure is in urgent need of repair. Many water and wastewater systems have outlived their intended lifespan. The changing climate puts added stresses on water systems. Rising sea levels and extreme storms flood neighborhoods and inundate systems with corrosive salt water. Population increases in some regions pose capacity and water supply challenges, while population decreases in others reduce the revenue that utilities need to operate and maintain water systems.

While these water-related challenges affect all communities, those that are already overburdened with economic, environmental, and health challenges are especially vulnerable. Those most affected are often lower-income people, communities of color, children, and the elderly, among others. The impacts of water stress on physical and mental health, child development, and economic mobility are cumulative, and often compounded by underlying challenges such as poverty and unemployment.

Part One of this paper describes the water challenges that vulnerable communities face, and explores how they affect different regions across the country.

The Challenges

Aging and inadequate infrastructure

Much of our nation’s water infrastructure was built over a century ago, and is in desperate need of repair today. Many water systems need significant investment to maintain a state of good repair and prepare for changing climatic conditions and population shifts. We lose hundreds of millions of gallons of water each year due to water main breaks and leaks. Upgrading our deteriorating water systems will cost approximately $1 trillion over the next 20 years.

Water systems are in a double bind: they must continue to deliver the high-quality service they have historically provided, while simultaneously rebuilding deteriorating systems with diminished federal support. The passage of the Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water Acts over 40 years ago was accompanied by federal funding to support local investment. Over the past few decades we have seen a steady decline in federal funding: the federal government has gone from contributing 63 percent of total capital spending on water infrastructure in 1977 to only nine percent in 2014. In comparison, the federal government’s spending on transportation infrastructure remained constant over the same period.

Today, most water infrastructure projects are funded by the local ratepayer base, which makes investment in water infrastructure projects particularly challenging for water utilities that have high concentrations of low-income people in their service territory. In addition, maintenance costs for some systems are compounded by decades of neglect and deferred investment. In many cases, regulations are driving increased capital spending, exacerbating fiscal challenges.

Lack of infrastructure

While aging or inadequate water infrastructure is a challenge in some parts of the country, other areas have never had centralized water and wastewater systems to begin with. According to the 2000 US Census, 1.7 million people lack access to complete plumbing facilities. African Americans are more than twice as likely as whites to live without modern plumbing. Rural communities, unincorporated areas surrounding cities, and tribal lands in particular lack water and wastewater infrastructure. People in areas without infrastructure often must pay for alternatives to centralized water service, such as household septic systems, bottled water, and water tanks. These replacement costs can create a significant financial burden for lower-income people and become a source of inconvenience and anxiety. Lack of infrastructure can stifle economic development, creating a cycle of diminished opportunity in these areas.

Lack of infrastructure can take many forms. Some areas have piped water but lack indoor bathrooms, while others depend on public taps or wells. Other areas have adequate infrastructure in individual houses but lack overall wastewater treatment or stormwater systems, which can cause flooding and contaminate water sources. Poorly maintained septic systems can also overflow and cause bacterial contamination of source water. Some service area boundaries may reflect discriminatory policy decisions that failed to extend infrastructure to low-income communities. Particular areas that lack infrastructure include Native American lands; Latino communities in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and the Central Valley of California; communities in Appalachia that are mostly home to white farm households; and areas in the deep South and along the Mississippi Delta with a majority African-American population.

Download full version (PDF): An Equitable Water Future

About the US Water Alliance
“The US Water Alliance advances policies and programs that build a sustainable water future for all. We accelerate the adoption of one water strategies—innovative, inclusive, and integrated approaches to water stewardship. As a member-supported, national nonprofit organization, the Alliance educates the nation about the true value of water and accelerates policies and programs that effectively manage water resources to build stronger communities and a stronger America.”

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