Insights from a Water Equity Taskforce Member
The Alliance is pleased to announce the release of our report, “Water Equity Taskforce: Insights for the Water Sector,” a report that highlights the achievements of the Water Equity Taskforce and the lessons learned throughout the project. The goals of the Taskforce were to promote water equity, the notion that everyone is entitled to safe drinking water and clean waterways no matter where they live or who they are, test and implement more inclusive and just strategies, and institutionalize equitable water management practices in the water utilities involved in the project.
During my tenure as Executive Director of the Camden County Municipal Utilities Authority (CCMUA), I had the good fortune to participate in the Water Equity Taskforce, one of the Alliance’s signature water equity initiatives. Camden served as one of the seven pilot cities in the Taskforce, along with Atlanta, Buffalo, Cleveland, Louisville, Milwaukee, and Pittsburgh. We found this to be a tremendous opportunity to increase our knowledge and enhance our water equity efforts. While each of the seven cities were chosen because of their ongoing commitment to water equity, none of the cities were experts in all aspects of equitable water systems. No one can know everything, and everyone can learn from someone! As a result, each of the seven utilities were able to learn about new programs and new strategies from the other cities in the Network.
Each of the other six cities had at least one water equity program that I wanted to replicate and adapt in Camden. For example, I was so impressed with Louisville’s community benefits program, in which they invited consultants to offer community assistance programs as part of their proposals for professional services. We adapted that into a community benefits program for our biosolids drying operations contract. In addition, I really liked Atlanta’s terrific water workforce program for returning citizens. There were several green infrastructure programs which make a tremendous difference for their communities. And then there was, perhaps, my favorite program—Milwaukee’s Working Soils program. It is such an innovative idea to work with farmers downstream to realize greater nutrient removal impacts at a fraction of the cost to Milwaukee ratepayers.
For water utility leaders, addressing water equity challenges can mean taking a risk in a sector that is sometimes resistant to change. Participation in the Water Equity Taskforce provided an invaluable opportunity to reduce this risk by confidentially discussing Camden’s specific challenges with six other peer utility leaders who were committed to becoming anchor institutions. In this way, I was able to see how my peer utility leaders dealt with similar challenges in their communities, and the successful strategies they used to advocate for equity. Working with the support of a community of trusted peers was much more effective than trying to go it alone.
Being a part of the Water Equity Taskforce allowed us to make greater progress on local water equity issues than we would have without a community of practice supporting us. While in the Taskforce, each city formed a team of environmental and community stakeholders and developed a water equity roadmap that addressed the specific water challenges of their city. The roadmap allowed us to take our various water equity initiatives and put them under the umbrella of an organized and strategic plan. It also added additional weight and credibility to the water equity work that we were doing with our community partners. Now, we could report to elected officials, decisionmakers, the public and even regulators that we were participating in a national initiative to ensure safe drinking water and clean waterways for every resident in our communities and the communities served by our fellow Taskforce cities. Water equity was no longer just an “idea” that could be debated; it was now a national initiative being implemented simultaneously by several cities across the country. This helped in pushing our water equity initiatives forward.
Belonging to a national water equity initiative, led by the US Water Alliance and comprised of major US cities, brought pride to the local community groups and policymakers who believe in environmental justice and water equity. It was encouraging to see that our water equity program belonged on the same stage with Atlanta, Buffalo, Cleveland, Louisville, Milwaukee, and Pittsburgh. And, for policymakers who were not as committed to the innate benefits of water equity, it was validating to be able to show that several cities across the country were doing the same things, and that the US Water Alliance was implementing an initiative aimed at ensuring that water equity is the rule, not the exception. Pointing to the work of the US Water Alliance and our sister water equity cities made a compelling case for our water equity initiative. Few policymakers want to be first on new issues, but they also don’t want to be last, either!
Finally, it was so important and uplifting for our community stakeholders to see that they were playing a critical role in advancing water equity and social justice across the country. When the opportunity youth in our PowerCorps Camden program received a standing ovation for their presentation to water utility leaders across the country, it was a tremendous boost to their confidence that they can carry with them throughout their lives, and something that I will never forget as well. Moreover, including community voices in our decision-making ensured that our strategies were responsive to the needs of residents.
The Alliance is continuing the work of the Taskforce, now the Water Equity Network, in 24 cities across the country and I cannot wait to see all that they can accomplish together. As a longtime utility manager, I could not recommend the experience of belonging to the US Water Alliance’s Water Equity Network more highly. And now as a member of the Alliance team, I have seen firsthand how Alliance staff are using what they learned from the Taskforce to take the Network to the next level.