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Solving US Drinking Water Challenges with Policy Innovations

Scott Berry, Director of Policy and Government Affairs, US Water Alliance | June 16, 2020

Over the course of several months in late 2019 and early 2020, the US Water Alliance and Water Foundation facilitated four regional roundtables to better understand the drinking water challenges confronting communities, and the ways that diverse stakeholders are driving policy solutions at the state and tribal level. The drinking water challenges facing America today are numerous, and include aging infrastructure, contamination, lack of access, and affordability, among others. Many of these challenges that people face have since been exacerbated as COVID-19 hit the United States and have been highlighted by the country’s ongoing discussions around structural racism and its impacts on Black, Indigenous, and communities of color. Today, the US Water Alliance is proud to share the results of our roundtables, the great stories we heard, and the common elements of success we learned in a new report in partnership with the Water Foundation: Policy Innovations to Secure Drinking Water for All. The report highlights the successful collaborations between community organizers, nonprofit leaders, public officials, utility managers, and funders, and features eight case studies that illustrate the power of cross-sector collaboration to define drinking water problems and co-create solutions. 

Community-based Solutions

People living in communities facing drinking water challenges often already have the knowledge to address those challenges. Residents of affected communities have the most grounded insights and the experience necessary to define problems, identify effective solutions, and ensure the policies apply to the realities facing those communities. One example the report highlights was in California, where one million people lack access to clean drinking water. In 2012, The Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, Community Water Center, and Clean Water Action led a 140-organization coalition that advanced legislation that led California to recognize the human right to water. The coalition also brought about the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund, which helped improve vulnerable communities’ access to drinking water and fund water infrastructure projects and utilities’ drinking water operations and maintenance expenses. The fund prioritizes marginalized communities and includes an advisory council of residents who identify needs and designate spending priorities. 

Long-term Leadership Capacity

Another element of success we found was the need to build and maintain long-term leadership capacity. Ohio is a great example of this we highlight in the report. Securing an innovative drinking water policy often takes years. For long-term campaigns to be successful, there needs to be long-term leadership. A campaign with strong leadership can provide a backbone offering the training necessary for residents and stakeholders to be effective advocates. The Ohio campaign that resulted in the 2019 H2Ohio plan, its legislative adoption, and funding shows the value of long-term leadership. Sparked by the 2014 Lake Erie algal bloom and the “do not drink order” for the city of Toledo, The Nature Conservancy in Ohio organized the Ohio Farm Bureau and other key players to work for mutually agreeable pollution control policy.

Partnerships and Coalitions

Another example we highlight from Georgia helps show the need to gather partners and build coalitions. Rarely can a single community, or a single advocate, secure truly innovative drinking water policy. Coalitions are usually essential to meaningful policy change. Diverse coalitions—where the interests of communities, environmental organizations, key businesses, and others are present—often express effectively to policymakers that a proposed policy both serves a broad public interest and has wide support necessary to be politically viable. The Georgia Water Coalition also exemplifies an influential a broad-based coalition. From its beginning with four organizations, the coalition has grown to include more than 200 groups representing sportspeople, conservationists, business owners, civic groups, religious organizations, farmers, homeowner and lake associations, and others from all over the state. The Coalition is now a powerful political player working to advance the collective interests of its members. California, Ohio, and Georgia all demonstrate the need to gather coalitions around a logical solution, where the coalition members and allies have a clear sense of how the solution relates to the problem and how it sets up the next phase of work. 
 
The Alliance and the Water Foundation are releasing this report as the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing movement for racial justice are radically changing our economy and society. The global pandemic has made it clear that public health is unattainable without clean water for all. Clean, affordable, and accessible water service is fundamental to public health and thriving communities but is often denied to Black, Indigenous, and communities of color.
 
Our two organizations are committed to advancing such lasting water solutions for communities, economies, and the environment. We hope this report will spark national dialogue within the water sector, among the philanthropic community, and with policymakers on how we can accelerate the promising approaches to drinking water policy innovation that are taking root in communities across the country. 
 
Read more in the full report here