Diving into Water Equity

By Maya Cough-Schulze, Water Resources Planner 

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 work at TJCOG are flooding risk and access to centralized water and wastewater infrastructure. 

Richard Rothstein’s book, “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. 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'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."

Research has shown that as our population centers have grown, environmental “dis-amenities” (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.

Flooding is another facet of water (in)equity that relates to my work as a planner. 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 a 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 here) 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 inequities 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".
  • Local governments and utilities can work to identify discriminatory land use, zoning and municipal incorporation practices that lead 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.

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.

(full ELGL post here)