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Diving into Water Equity

Posted on October 29, 2020


Maya sitting on rock on gorge

This article was written by Maya Cough-Schulze, Triangle J Council of Governments, Water Resources Planner. Maya wrote this article as part of the Water Resources Cohort. Read all the articles from the cohort here. Connect with Maya on LinkedIn.


The US Water Alliance defines “water equity” as the condition where all communities:

  • Have access to safe, clean, affordable drinking water and wastewater services;
  • Share in the economic, social, and environmental benefits of water systems; and
  • Are resilient in the face of floods, drought, and other climate risks.

Water equity is a huge topic; two aspects relevant to my work as a Water Resources Planner include flooding risk and access to centralized water and wastewater infrastructure. Many other facets of water equity are outlined in the US Water Alliance’s publication “An Equitable Water Future: A National Briefing Paper” (linked at the end of this post.)

Richard Rothstein’s “The Color of Law” outlines how discrimination through the 20th century was used to systematically and legally relegate people of color to specific portions of cities, typically on less desirable land (see this short video narrated by the author to better understand how and why: https://www.segregatedbydesign.com/.) One legacy of this residential segregation is that black communities are more likely than white communities to be vulnerable to flooding impacts and are less likely to be served by centralized water and wastewater infrastructure.

The American Water Works Association (AWWA)’s “A Water Utility Manager’s Guide to Community Stewardship” frames this discussion by noting that “Utilities did not create these conditions…but rather have inherited this legacy from past land-use practices and discrimination. Utilities have an opportunity to design their services and new infrastructure improvements so that past injustices are not replicated, and that services and programs are distributed equitably across the service area.”

A bulk of scholarship over the 20th century has shown that as our population centers have grown, environmental “disamenities” (such as landfills and industrial sites) have been intentionally sited in neighborhoods where people of color live. More recent research has shown that municipal incorporation has also been used as a method of racial exclusion and a means of providing environmental amenities (such as doctors’ offices, grocery stores and water and wastewater services). In her 2019 article about race and the environmental benefits of municipal incorporation, Danielle Purifoy found that communities of color on the edge of towns have often been excluded from municipalities, while their white neighbors have been incorporated. This pattern, termed “municipal underbounding,” is a water equity issue if water and wastewater lines are only extended to those within municipal boundaries. Without piped water and wastewater, homeowners rely on private wells and septic systems. If they cannot afford to maintain these systems, they become more vulnerable to waterborne disease (for more on this, see also Leker and MacDonald Gibson’s 2018 article: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0193225.) Given how entrenched racial disparities are, Purifoy also found that while municipal incorporation was associated with greater likelihood of environmental amenities for white residents, black residents did not see the same benefits of incorporation.

Flooding is another facet of water (in)equity that relates to my work as a planner. I saw firsthand when mapping stormwater infrastructure in a small Piedmont town in North Carolina how poorer neighborhoods are often situated on less desirable land in the floodplain. While flooding can affect anyone, low-income residents are less likely to be able to mitigate the effects of flooding on their homes, health, and safety. And flooding impacts vary not only by socioeconomic status but by race. In their 2018 study of the impacts of flooding following Hurricane Matthew on Lumberton, NC, a team of university and federal researchers found that “population dislocation probabilities were found to be higher for black and Native American households than for white households given the presence of the same residential damage state following the flood” (full article available here: https://doi.org/10.6028/NIST.SP.1230.) As we face more frequent and intense hurricanes and other storm events, these disparate flooding impacts will only worsen.

What can we do about these water-related injustices from a systemic perspective?

  • Local governments and utilities can build on other jurisdictions’ examples of working to increase equity in planning, assessment, funding and project delivery, such as those outlined in the US Water Alliance’s “An Equitable Water Future: A National Briefing Paper”: http://uswateralliance.org/sites/uswateralliance.org/files/publications/uswa_waterequity_FINAL.pdf
  • Local governments and utilities can work to correct the discriminatory land use, zoning and municipal incorporation practices that have led to inequitable flood protection and access to water and wastewater infrastructure.
  • Local governments and utilities can invest in economic and climate resilience plans, policies, and projects in vulnerable communities to help prevent future harm as extreme weather becomes the norm and income inequality continues to widen in the COVID economy.

A few resources available to help local government and utility staff increase water equity within their sphere of influence include:

The AWWA’s “A Water Utility Manager’s Guide to Community Stewardship” shares a range of ways that water utilities can work towards equity in all aspects of their operations: https://bit.ly/35UkxzD

The Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE) offers many resources, the simplest of which is a set of questions that local governments can use to consider equity in any decision-making process:

  • What [project, policy] is proposed/recommended?
  • What is the desired result/outcome?
  • What does the data say?
  • Who will benefit/be burdened?
  • What could be some unintended consequences?

And finally: What can be done to mitigate harm?

Over the coming year, I will continue to share any water equity-related resources I find with relevant local government partners. Additionally, I plan to consider the questions above in decisions on projects I directly manage, such as when prioritizing watershed restoration recommendations, stormwater education priorities, or other decisions related to access to or allocation of environmental amenities.

Considering equity before making any planning or policy decisions can help us in the water sector work proactively toward a just water future for all. As we continue to face ‘threat multipliers’ from pandemics to climate-related hazards, local governments, elected officials, and utilities will need to work together toward solving water equity challenges that have been decades in the making. This will not be quick or easy but grounding our actions in an understanding of past and present inequities provides us with a springboard toward considering actions we can take to remedy them.

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