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Recovering Stronger: State Innovations—Northeast Region: Centering Relationships

Joya Banerjee and Sarah Huckins | July 1, 2021

In the Northeast, challenges in the region are shaping priorities for recovery efforts. Across the region, increasing climate impacts are demonstrating the importance of protecting water resources. Drought, not something typically experienced in the region, is now becoming a lived reality and driving attention to water quantity challenges. The region is also vulnerable to climate disruptions such as sea level rise and warming oceans.  
 
The Northeast states also face a wide array of water quality issues. In the far North, Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire are working on addressing PFAS in water, whereas further West, New Jersey and Pennsylvania are focusing on lead contamination. Another challenge that pervades the region is the reliance on private drinking water wells and septic systems. When these systems fail, those they serve often lack resources to fix them. Most states need more resources and greater capacity to help this population maintain water and wastewater access.  
 
However, despite these challenges, participants in the Northeast Listening Session felt galvanized by the diversity of organizations coalescing around these issues and finding areas of overlap. In the session, participants identified source-water protection as a nexus point and an opportunity to collaborate across sectors. Already the region is seeing stakeholders from public health organizations, nonprofits, water systems, academia, and environmental justice organizations coming together to provide input on what is needed to move forward. As in other regions, the funding for infrastructure slated to come from the federal government is renewing conversation, at every level of government, about the need to invest in water infrastructure and to ensure access to safe, reliable, and affordable water. 

What We Heard 

Recovery must be intersectional. Participants emphasized the importance of looking at how water is connected to other resources. As in Texas and across the South following Winter Storm Uri, participants see a need to understand the connections between the energy and water sectors. Participants also noted an important connection between water, land use, and soil health, particularly as it relates to source water protection. By looking at watershed health through an intersectional lens, recovery can create multiple benefits—something that has resonated across sessions.  
 
Recovery must incorporate indigenous knowledge. Participants identified that many of the movements around water today are led by women and youth from indigenous communities. Recovery efforts will benefit from the use of indigenous knowledge and from partnership with tribes and nations. The concept that water has inherent value is central to the future of water management.  
 
Recovery must close the gap in digital infrastructure. While some utilities have the resources to adopt new technologies, many do not have the financial capacity to keep pace. This is particularly challenging for under-resourced utilities as regulatory demands increase. Leaders also see gaps in state digital infrastructure, as some utilities are reporting water data electronically but are finding state processes are not compatible.  
 
Recovery must center relationships. As in other sessions, participants noted the importance of partnership and trust as key variables. Leaders in the Northeast emphasized that driving strong relationships between partners is crucial—purely transactional interactions will not be successful. Understanding partners’ strengths and leveraging complementary skills is incredibly valuable, especially when working with limited financial resources. Many of the policies and programs shared by participants involve strong relationships across sectors and agencies. Some examples are included below:  
 
Climate Adaptation and Resilience 
  • In Massachusetts, the Municipal Vulnerability Preparedness (MVP) grant program provides communities with funding to complete vulnerability assessments and to develop resiliency plans. Communities that complete the MVP program then become eligible for MVP Action grant funding. MVP Action grant projects must incorporate nine core principles, including employing nature-based solutions and increasing equitable outcomes.
  • In Rhode Island, Governor Daniel McKee signed into law the 2021 Act on Climate (S0078, H5445), which builds upon Resilient Rhode Island Act of 2014 by identifying more ambitious climate goals. The 2021 Act on Climate calls for the creation of an executive climate change coordinating council. The act also directs state agencies to assess the vulnerability of infrastructure and natural systems, including wastewater and drinking water treatment facilities as well as coastal habitats.
  • In New Jersey, Executive Order 89 calls for a statewide climate change resilience strategy. The Order also establishes a climate and flood resilience program within the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. The state released the first statewide climate change resiliency strategy in 2021, and the Executive Order calls for a review of the strategy every two years.  

Affordability and Access  
  • In New York, Buffalo Water and Buffalo Sewer Authority are working together with community-based organizations like Catholic Charities to ensure equitable water access and to build trust with customers. Through the Get Water Wise Buffalo platform, Buffalo residents can apply to the Residential Affordable Water Program by taking pictures of required documents and submitting via their phone. Households are automatically eligible for water assistance if residents receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Home Energy Assistance Program (HEAP) benefits. 

Infrastructure, Jobs, and Economic Recovery  
  • In Pennsylvania, PowerCorps PHL is an AmeriCorps program that provides young people work experience with Philadelphia Parks & Recreation and with the Philadelphia Water Department. Annually, the program seeks to enroll 18- to 26-year-olds who are residents of Philadelphia and are unemployed or underemployed. The program is designed to support environmental stewardship initiatives and to advance workforce development priorities. 
  • In New Jersey, Executive Order 221 establishes the Office of Climate Action and the Green Economy, which emphasizes the need to transition to a just green economy. The Executive Order highlights water infrastructure and system operations as key opportunities to create green jobs. The Executive Order also states that job creation strategies need to prioritize “equity, diversity, inclusion, and environmental and economic justice.” 

Innovation and New Models of Partnership  
  • In Maine, Sebago Clean Waters (SCW) received $8 million from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) through the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) Alternative Funding Arrangement (AFA). SCW, a diverse coalition led by Portland Water District, will use the USDA funds to leverage another $10.5 million from public and private sources. The grant will support forest conservation, land stewardship, and stream connectivity in the Sebago Lake Watershed. The AFA allows partners to have more flexibility to implement approaches that would not otherwise fall under the scope of a traditional RCPP.
  • In Connecticut, the CT Council on Soil and Water Conservation works with the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (CT DEEP), the CT Department of Agriculture, and other partner agencies to coordinate the activities of Connecticut’s soil and water conservation districts. The Council was created by state statute (C.G.S. 22a-315a) and is governed by a nine-person Board of Directors, representing each of the five conservation districts, CT DEEP, CT Department of Agriculture, UCONN’s cooperative extension system, and a nongovernment organization appointed by the governor.
  • In New Jersey, NJ Water Check, created by Jersey Water Works, is an open source, digital tool that organizes water data and allows residents to learn more about their water systems. The platform helps customers, but can also be used by utilities and regulators. For example, the tool includes digitized maps of service areas and census tract data, which can help identify locations with affordability challenges.  

Water Quality 
  • In Vermont, the state legislature passed S20, an act to ban PFAS in consumer products including firefighting foam, food packaging, and carpets. The bill had wide bipartisan support—the bill passed 145-0 in the House and 30-0 in the Senate—and has been signed by the Governor into law.   
  • In Connecticut, the Farm River Watershed Pilot Project provided assessment and planning assistance for source water protection through the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service’s National Water Quality Initiative. The funds from NRCS were matched by the Southwest Conservation District and the Regional Water Authority. 
  • Also in Connecticut, the Governor’s Council on Climate Change issued a Phase 1 Report of Near-Term Actions, which calls for the improvement of soil health practices on and off farms through technical assistance and training. Healthy soil reduces erosion and increases water filtration, leading to improved water quality.  

While these projects and policies are giving leaders hope, the Northeast session participants remain concerned about ongoing capacity challenges. With federal funding coming to the state and local levels, participants are worried about the ability of existing programs to take on new funding and the ability of the current workforce to take on new infrastructure projects. Throughout the State Innovation Listening Sessions, capacity, and often the lack thereof, has been top of mind for participants. Another challenge that resonated across sessions is the reliance on rates to fund water utilities. In the Northeast, individuals are thinking about this challenge as it relates both to affordability and to drought planning. When utilities are dependent on rates to function, the need to promote water conservation is complicated. There is a need for continued conversation on how to approach funding water systems, and the Alliance will take note of this as the Recovering Stronger teams turns to the next phase of the project.  

What’s Next: 

The Northeast Listening Session is the penultimate Session in the Recovering Stronger State Innovations Project. Up next is the South Listening Session, which will round out the first phase of the project. Along the way, the Alliance has been lifting up key themes, policies, and practices surfaced in these Listening Sessions. Previous Session recaps can be found on the Alliance’s Recovering Stronger State Innovations page. The next phase of the project involves synthesizing the information gathered. Looking towards the fall, the Alliance will be releasing a summary report of the six Listening Sessions with a corresponding map tool that plots projects and programs geographically.