Guest Column | July 15, 2020

Initiative Takes On Water Systems, Climate Change, And Inequity

By Dr. Jalonne L. White-Newsome

The water industry and the communities it supports are beset with many problems when it comes to failing infrastructure and systems; but some have it worse than others.

You could call it a triple threat. After decades of deferred investment, America’s water systems are in desperate need of updating and repair. Now, those systems are battered as never before by climate change. As a warming planet brings more frequent and intense storms, our nation’s water infrastructure — sensors, SCADA systems, miles of pipes, pumps, and tunnels — is being pushed to the limit. And deeply entrenched inequities ensure that low-income communities and people of color suffer the greatest impacts — from devastating floods to skyrocketing utility rates.

The connections among water, climate change, and inequity are clear. But until recently, that intersection went unexplored and unaddressed. The Kresge Foundation set out to change that: Since 2016, the Foundation has invested some $14 million in the Climate Resilient and Equitable Water Systems Initiative (CREWS).

CREWS works to transform urban stormwater and wastewater systems, so that they will be able to provide reliable, equitable, and innovative services to communities, despite the uncertainties introduced by climate change. To that end, CREWS deploys grants and social investments (e.g., low-cost loans, financing) to support green stormwater infrastructure (GSI) in low-income communities and communities of color that experience repeated flooding.

As importantly, CREWS strengthens human infrastructure, by bringing together a diverse group of stakeholders: water utility leaders, municipal GSI managers, community organizers, engineers and project developers, environmentalists, and others. The initiative focuses on making sure those stakeholders have the technical information they need to develop climate-informed, equitable water solutions, as well as the knowledge and tools needed to address the systemic and institutional racism that pervades the water sector — and our nation as a whole.

Defining The Challenge

Water utilities were created to provide safe and timely distribution of water and related services. But, in some cases, utilities’ policies and practices — the models used to set water rates, decisions about where maintenance is performed, and which communities receive federal funds — have “baked-in” inequity that can cause harm, particularly to low-income communities and communities of color. Both institutional and structural racism, sometimes invisible, has been the root cause and contributor to the lack of resilience in systems intended to meet the needs of water-vulnerable communities.

Institutional racism can be defined as the ways in which institutional policies and practices create divergent outcomes for different racial groups, specifically creating an advantage for whites and oppressing people from groups classified as people of color. Structural racism, a history and current reality of racism across all institutions, contributes to a lower quality of life for people of color, compared to white people.

These pervasive forms of racism were on vivid display during the Flint water crisis. A report1 from the Michigan Commission on Civil Rights acknowledges that racism — past and present — put Flint residents at risk. Municipal leaders were slow to recognize the unfolding emergency: Evidence and pleas from residents concerned about their health and safety were not taken seriously, and the historical practice of redlining forced people of color and immigrants into areas with decaying or nonexistent infrastructure. Moreover, the report found that communities of color are targeted for hazardous waste sites, polluting industrial facilities, and other locally unwanted land uses (LULUs) because they lack resources and political clout.

Advancing Water Equity

Understanding the historical context is critical to advancing water equity. According to the U.S. Water Alliance, water equity is achieved 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 related to water management in their communities; and share in the economic, social, and environmental benefits of water systems.”

Across the country, many municipal leaders, water utilities, and community-based organizations are working to advance water equity. Leaders in the CREWS Initiative exemplify how education, intentional engagement, building a community of learning and practice, equity-focused project delivery, partnership, and innovative financing can move this sector forward:

Education: The Green Infrastructure Exchange (GIX) provides a forum for GSI program managers to adopt best practices, innovate more quickly, and establish a template for GSI implementation. GSI is a relatively new and not yet well-accepted practice that requires significant changes to the ways communities implement infrastructure. Moreover, decision-making processes do not typically center the needs of vulnerable communities. To address these issues, GIX provides equity training for staff and members, as well as peer-learning groups, to work through members’ equity-related challenges. The group also created metrics to hold themselves accountable to operationalizing these efforts. The goal is to develop a practical playbook for any community to achieve fast, cost-effective, and equitable GSI delivery.

Intentional engagement: In partnership with the Atlanta Department of Watershed Management (DWM), Eco-Action (an Atlanta-based community organization) is engaged in collaborative decision-making to manage stormwater, flooding, and other watershed issues across several communities. Eco-Action worked with the DWM to develop “Stormwater Roadshows,” a series of open-house events that provide an opportunity for staff to learn from the community while sharing information about the utility and its programs. By building the relationship between the utility and the communities it serves, Eco-Action has helped provide a much-needed platform to co-create solutions to community concerns and target investments where the infrastructure is the most vulnerable.

Building an inclusive community of learning and practice: Diverse perspectives that are gathered from interacting and learning with various communities can result in a stronger, less fragmented sector. That is why, since 2017, CREWS has convened annual three-day gatherings of partners. These meetings enable grantees to share information and resources with water leaders across sectors, strengthen the capacity of CREWS grantees to use climate science and equity analysis tools in their work, and celebrate progress while acknowledging the work ahead. In addition to the meetings, CREWS hosts webinars, community service projects, in-person meet-ups at water-related events, and peer clinics on topics of interest.

Partnership: By forging new relationships, CREWS partners enhance collective impact at many scales. New Jersey’s Fair Share Housing Center (FSHC), which used its legal expertise to ensure equitable distribution of recovery funds after Hurricane Sandy, is now advising hurricane-impacted communities in Florida, Puerto Rico, and Texas. Working with other CREWS partners throughout the U.S., FSHC proposed critical long-term reforms, which have been adopted in federal regulatory policy. Another example: The U.S. Water Alliance hosted a nine-city “boot camp” focused on urban flooding and its impacts on vulnerable communities. The boot camp improved collaboration among stakeholders working to advance equitable climate resilience.

Equity-focused project delivery: True resilience requires thinking differently about the processes and people involved in designing and building water infrastructure. One pioneer in this area is Greenprint Partners (GPP), a for-profit, mission-driven project developer that helps guide cities to develop and finance GSI. Working in flood-prone, economically disadvantaged neighborhoods in St. Louis, Philadelphia, and San Francisco, GPP engages the community — residents, local businesses, nonprofits, and city officials — throughout the planning and implementation process. Participants in the GPP process are enthusiastic about building greater resilience, and they appreciate the greater community cohesion and trust that results when communities are directly involved — from beginning to end — in designing public green spaces.

2019 CREWS Annual Convening in Richmond, VA. Over 150 grantees and partners attended, including water utility directors, municipal leaders, community-based organizations, researchers, and other water leaders.

Innovative financing: Few grant programs support impact investing deal development (pre-development, engagement, planning, etc.) for GSI, even though green infrastructure generates more co-benefits than any other stormwater solution. The CREWS Initiative has worked to create innovative financing for GSI, beginning with a capital water scan that explored opportunities to deploy multiple forms of capital. Part of the role of foundations is to take risks and develop a market or practice aligned with their mission. Kresge sought to understand how the foundation’s full range of resources could be utilized to incorporate climate and equity concerns in the water sector, identify opportunities to invest or build a pipeline of investments, and identify barriers that impede the flow of capital to projects that benefit disinvested urban communities. To that end, Kresge invested in feasibility studies of three financing models: Watershed Improvement Districts, Environmental Impact Bonds, and Joint Benefit Authorities:

  • A Watershed Improvement District (WID) is a defined area in which property owners receive reductions in their drainage charges through offsets from GSI projects built on behalf of the district. A WID is currently under consideration in Detroit, in collaboration with the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) and The Nature Conservancy of Michigan. As envisioned, the WID would leverage multiple local and state programs to build large-scale GSI in a way that integrates neighborhood revitalization with environmental stewardship, lowers utility fees, and attracts business and residential investment. The WID concept includes an innovative financing mechanism that would encourage private investment by tying incentives to new land and stormwater policies and ensure that GSI projects can be funded at scale.
  • Environmental Impact Bonds (EIBs) use a “pay for success” financing model to support projects that achieve environmental and socioeconomic goals. Cities pay for what they get: If a project is extremely successful and overshoots its goals, higher repayments reflect the greater value of the project to the city; but if a project falls short of its goals, repayments are lower. EIBs therefore allow local governments to share project risks with investors who care about environmental and social outcomes. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) partnered with outcomes-based capital firm Quantified Ventures (QV) to explore EIBs for GSI in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed — including bioswales, raingardens, constructed wetlands, pervious pavement, and green roofs that naturally slow the flow of stormwater from urban landscapes.
  • A Joint Benefits Authority (JBA) is a mechanism that allows multiple government agencies or departments to jointly plan, implement, and fund projects that produce a range of co-benefits. A JBA can unite multiple agencies behind the project by allowing each to pay for specific outcomes relevant to its mission. The World Resources Institute, Encourage Capital, Liquid Assets Project, and the San Francisco Public Utility Commission are partnering to pilot this model. The goal is to advance social equity through inclusive and integrated implementation, focusing on GSI projects with multiple co-benefits such as clean air and water, flood resilience, ecological health, urban greening, and neighborhood beautification.

Moving Forward

Most of our physical water infrastructure is underground, invisible to the general public. That is also true of the institutional and structural inequities that pervade the water sector. Those inequities, combined with climate change and the poor state of our nation’s water infrastructure, have brought flooding and other hardships to low-income communities and communities of color. To address this triple threat, the CREWS Initiative is investing in a diverse, capable set of urban water leaders. Together, those leaders will expose inequities in existing processes and policies, learn from one another about problems and solutions, and pioneer new strategies to deliver resources to the communities that need them most.



About The Author

Dr. Jalonne L. White-Newsome is a senior program officer at The Kresge Foundation, a national private foundation headquartered in Detroit.