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Recovering Stronger: State Innovations—South Region: Empowering Communities

Joya Banerjee and Sarah Huckins | July 6, 2021

The South is a region with considerable leadership in addressing the compounding challenges of climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. Southern communities are facing multiple climate disasters—from drought and extreme cold weather to algal blooms along the coast—resulting in communities without access to drinking water and exacerbating challenges for those that lack access to wastewater infrastructure. Participants in the South Listening Session lifted up the need to invest in the South to address these challenges, and the need to amplify frontline community voices in shaping solutions, policies, and practices.  
 
While participants expressed that the federal response to the pandemic is heartening, there was a shared belief that much more work needs to be done. One Water leaders at the state level can seek opportunities to collaborate, identify intersections between work underway, and embrace a lens of equity and inclusiveness.  

What We Heard 

Decision-making processes must include those who are impacted. Participants in the South Listening Session see that state officials in the region are demonstrating interest in addressing environmental and climate change-related challenges. However, when decisions come from individuals who are not experiencing the issues directly, solutions fall short. Several participants indicated that in their state, decisions—particularly about flooding and disaster response—are often not made by those who rely on disaster support the most. Additionally, urgency during the wake of a natural disaster can lead to changes to water management that disenfranchise historically excluded communities without additional protections in place. Recognizing the lived experience of those affected as valuable to the recovery process is key to building a better water future.  
 
A sense of urgency must not lead to exclusion. In this moment of acute stress from the pandemic and the ensuing economic downturn, recovering quickly is a top priority for decision-makers. In the session, participants emphasized that, despite the urgency inherent in the need for recovery, leaders must take the time to involve representatives from community-based organizations and indigenous communities. Participants made the important distinction that outreach is not the same as engagement. Outreach after decisions are made is not as effective as engaging community members in processes from the outset.  
 
Recovery must recognize root causes. Participants highlighted that recovery efforts that do not address underlying injustices and inequities will not succeed. For example, many water challenges are symptoms of wealth inequality. To not perpetuate the same inequities, participants called for federal and state policies that prioritize the most marginalized. Anti-poverty policies would enable a stronger recovery by addressing discrepancies in wealth and broadening who can afford services and solutions.   
 
The South is the source of several promising policies to aid recovery efforts. A few examples are shared below:  
 
Climate Adaptation and Resilience 

Affordability and Access 
  • Our Florida is a program of the Florida Department of Children and Families and is funded by the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program. The program provides eligible renters assistance with past due utilities. Individuals who earn an income at or below 80 percent of the area’s median income are eligible for assistance.   

Infrastructure, Jobs, and Economic Recovery  
  • The Gulf South for a Green New Deal is a multi-state (TX, LA, MS, AL, FL) initiative dedicated to advancing a regional vision for a just climate transition and promotes the creation of ecologically sustainable jobs. 
  • In Kentucky, the State Legislature passed a bill allowing utilities to own infrastructure assets outside of their chartered borders. Under the legislation, Louisville Metropolitan Sewer District has been able to advance their regionalization initiative and operate systems in Bullitt County, the City of Crestwood, and Oldham County.
  • In Tennessee, TNH2O outlines a roadmap to secure the future of the state’s water resources. The roadmap details the current state of the drinking water and wastewater infrastructure in the state and calls for additional funding sources to maintain, repair, and replace aging infrastructure. TNH2O also emphasizes that attention must be paid to the diminishing water workforce and calls for more water operators in the state. 

Innovation and New Models of Partnership  
  • In Georgia, the Georgia Water Coalition, an alliance of more than 250 organizations, is committed to protecting water resources. Every two years, the Coalition produces a report detailing recommendations for water management across the state.  
  • In Kentucky, Louisville Water and Louisville Metropolitan Sewer District are partnering with PromisePay to provide flexible payment plans for customers with outstanding balances. PromisePay is an online service that allows customers to enroll in a payment plan via their phone. The payment plans are interest fee and do not have late fees, and PromisePay works closely with customers if there is a need to change payment dates. Read a case study on this work here.  

Water Quality 
  • In Kentucky, the Drinking Water Advisory Council formed the Lead in Drinking Water Workgroup. The Workgroup is comprised of representatives from the Department of Health, Kentucky Rural Water Association, the University of Louisville, Louisville Water Company, and other utilities across the state. 
  • In Georgia, the Department of Education received $1.1 million through the Environmental Protection Agency’s Voluntary Lead Testing in Schools and Child Care grant program. The funds will be dedicated to testing drinking water for lead in schools in high risk communities across the state.  
The South Listening Session concluded with an acknowledgement that those working on water cannot meet this moment while being siloed. Participants emphasized that ensuring indigenous communities are a part of continued discussions and decision-making processes is a crucial element to building a strong and inclusive recovery. This resonated across Listening Sessions. Participants across regions echoed that recovery efforts will benefit from including representatives of all communities who are experiencing water challenges and from embracing cultural connections to water. Through collaboration across sectors and across perspectives, leaders can build towards a One Water recovery.  

What’s Next: 

The South Listening Session is the final of six Listening Sessions hosted by the US Water Alliance as a part of the Recovering Stronger: State Innovations initiative. Across the country, participants shared examples of programs and policies that are giving them hope and detailed what processes can help build a better water future. To read the regional recaps from the six Listening Sessions, follow this link. The Recovering Stronger team is working on synthesizing the themes that emerged in the Sessions and this fall will be releasing a summary of the key elements that will contribute to a One Water recovery. This summary will accompany a digital tool that maps the policies and programs that were highlighted throughout the sessions. This knowledge map will help One Water leaders find policies and programs either by geography or by issue area. The Alliance looks forward to sharing the summary and map later this fall.