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Recovering Stronger: State Innovations—Mid-Atlantic Region: Harnessing Creativity

Joya Banerjee and Sarah Huckins | July 1, 2021

The Mid-Atlantic is defined by water—bordered by the Atlantic Ocean and home to the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. Increasingly, the region is being shaped by severe weather events causing damage from too much water. From 2000-2020, the Mid-Atlantic had twice as many hurricanes as the preceding two decades. Climate change is making these weather events more intense and frequent and is compounding the challenges resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite these challenges, participants of the Mid-Atlantic Recovering Stronger Listening Session shared optimism that this time of transition provides an opportunity to embrace bold new approaches.  
 
Right now, the water sector is dealing with foundational issues, but overcoming those challenges can lead to creative new solutions. As in previous Listening Sessions, participants expressed a desire to harness creativity in a way that moves the sector and the nation forward. Many participants shared that this is already ongoing; that One Water leaders are adapting quickly and converting problems into windows of opportunity. Participants are seeing the need to take the time to ensure solutions are creating multiple benefits including the promotion of workforce development, environmental justice, and climate resilience. 
 
Participants recognized that multi-benefit solutions will take longer to design but are worth the investment in time and resources. As in other Sessions, participants emphasized the need to address historic underinvestment and develop fair and equitable solutions. Participants also noted they are seeing greater collaboration and coordination to address shared challenges. Coalitions are rising to meet the moment and are growing in strength and endurance, driving a One Water recovery.  

What We Heard 

Recovery must build capacity. In the wake of the Biden Administration’s historic infrastructure proposal, which calls for an $111 billion investment in water infrastructure, participants emphasized that funding alone won’t solve the myriad challenges on the ground. Many utilities are not well equipped to apply for funding, or to get assistance funding out to customers. Federal and state lawmakers need to provide additional resources and assist with capacity building at an organizational level so utilities and other entities eligible for funding can establish and implement effective programs.  
 
Recovery must be designed for the customer. Participants highlighted that program users must be involved in the design process. For example, participants noted that farmers are too often encouraged to adopt and maintain new technologies that protect water and soil quality without first being supported with the capacity to do so. Another common example is how individuals eligible for bill assistance and payment plans are often unable to access those programs because of barriers to entry, cumbersome processes, and insufficient outreach. Programs need to be designed with, rather than for, the user so recovery can be effective and so programs can be sustainable over the long term.  
 
Recovery must build trust. Recovery efforts must involve One Water leaders—including utility managers, conservationists, and policymakers—building trust amongst constituents. Involving communities early in the design process can be a way to promote trust. Providing data about new policies and programs can be helpful, but only if the data comes from a trusted source. Learning where and with whom community trust lies will be essential to the development and adoption of forward-looking policies and practices, some examples of which are shared here:  
 
Climate Adaptation and Resilience   
  • In Maryland, the General Assembly passed a climate adaptation bill (SB 227/HB 295) that updates Maryland’s stormwater design standards in an effort to increase community resilience and mitigate flooding impacts.  
  • Also in Maryland, the General Assembly passed the Tree Solutions Now Act (HB 991), which funds the planting of 5 million trees over the next ten years, including 500,000 trees in underserved communities. The 5 million tree planting program was originally a provision of the Climate Solutions Now Act, which did not pass. Trees help mitigate stormwater runoff and reduce ensuing flooding by absorbing rain through their leaves, branches, trunk, and roots.  

Affordability and Access  
  • In Virginia, the House of Delegates passed House Joint Resolution 538, which states “equitable access to safe drinking water and sanitation is an integral component of the realization of all human rights.” The bill also calls for a statewide affordability program. The bill is now in the hands of the Virginia Senate Rules Committee.
  • In the District of Columbia, DC Water launched the Multifamily Assistance Program, which sets aside $7 million to assist customers residing in multifamily properties—a population that is often overlooked by traditional water utility assistance efforts. The program, launched in February 2021, has supported over 5,000 households.  

Infrastructure, Jobs, and Economic Recovery  
  • In Virginia, Alexandria Renew Enterprises (AlexRenew) received a $321 million Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act (WIFIA) loan for the RiverRenew Tunnel System project. The WIFIA loan will finance half of the project costs, and the remaining funds will come from a Virginia Clean Water State Revolving Fund loan, state grants, and cash contributions from AlexRenew. The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that approximately 2,000 direct and indirect jobs will be created through the RiverRenew project. 
  • In Prince George’s County, Maryland, the county and Corvias entered a 30-year partnership to improve stormwater infrastructure and commit to working with local, small, minority, and women owned businesses. The partnership also seeks to promote workforce development with a goal of hiring county residents for work on project construction. 

Innovation and New Models of Partnership  
  • In North Carolina, Jordan Lake One Water (JLOW) is a partnership to facilitate integrated water management in the Jordan Lake Watershed. The JLOW partnership includes members of local governments, conservation groups, universities, water utilities, agriculture, and private industry. In 2019, the partnership developed the Jordan Lake One Water Workplan.
  • Also in North Carolina, the Town of Cary and others in the Research Triangle participated in a 2020 tracking COVID-19 in wastewater study. In partnership with Biobot, MIT, Harvard, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, the Town of Cary provided wastewater samples to researchers working to develop an “early warning” tool for COVID-19 spikes.   

Water Quality 
  • In Virginia, the Lake Anna Civic Association (LACA) created a Volunteer Water Quality Monitoring Program, which is now carried out jointly with Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality. Through the Water Quality Monitoring Program, LACA partners with Virginia Tech and Randolph Macon College to collect data focused on toxic algal blooms.
  • In West Virginia, the state legislature passed Senate Concurrent Resolution 46, which calls for a source water supply study to identify any potential presence of PFAS. The Resolution calls for the state Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Health and Human Services to jointly propose and conduct a study that tests all community water systems in West Virginia. 
  • In North Carolina, the Upper Neuse River Basin Association (UNRBA) is a coalition of members of local government, public and private agencies, and affected communities. In March 2021, the UNRBA voted to invest $1.5 million each year for water quality projects over the next five years through the Interim Alternative Implementation Approach (IAIA). This new approach expands the list of eligible options for managing nutrient pollution and was developed in collaboration with regulators, those being regulated, and environmental advocacy groups.  
     
Although water resources and water infrastructure are in the national spotlight under the Biden Administration, Listening Session participants still see a need to elevate water as a top priority in the minds of the American people. While polling data from the Water Hub at Climate Nexus and the Value of Water Campaign show that there is broad, bipartisan support for funding water infrastructure, there is still a perception that water is taken for granted—not by all, but by some. Part of this may stem from water’s history as a hidden service, and participants highlighted that this moment provides an opportunity to make processes, projects, and people more visible. After decades of the water sector being out of sight and out of mind, it will take a concerted effort to demonstrate the true cost of water. Key to this effort will be continuing to pull back the curtain on who is making the nation’s water systems run and centering water workers as essential. Narratives around water infrastructure must demonstrate the crucial role that water infrastructure plays in everyone’s lives.  

What’s Next: 

As the US Water Alliance gathers examples of policies, programs, and projects that could be beneficial to recovery efforts, the Recovering Stronger Initiative team is selecting which examples to research more deeply. It is the Alliance’s goal to take what’s been learned through the Listening Sessions, an online survey, and individual interviews to create a tool that allows One Water leaders to search for examples of projects that could be valuable to replicate or scale. This tool, which will be developed after the completion of the six Listening Sessions, will provide more information about how an example project was developed and who the key players were.