December 18, 2023

From the release of An Equitable Water Future and the launch of our seven-city Water Equity Taskforce in 2017 to the inception of the Water Equity Network in 2020, the Alliance and our members understand that equity is a major concern for water utilities and the communities they serve. Our Water Equity Network now supports over 40 communities across the country committed to building cross-sector partnerships to forge progress on the three pillars of water equity: ensuring all people have access to clean, safe, and affordable water service; maximizing the community and economic benefits of water infrastructure investment; and fostering community resilience in the face of a changing climate.

As the Water Equity Network grows, we are excited to create new opportunities to collectively advance water equity. Geography can sometimes dictate culture, history, climate, and water stress, so the Alliance piloted regional gatherings in 2023 to connect in person, share insights, and support equitable One Water policies and practices.

Blue and green map of Midwestern/Great Lakes united States with cities highlighted

In July, we held our fifth and final regional gathering of 2023 in Chicago, IL, uniting Water Equity Network cities located in the Great Lakes and Midwestern United States. We were joined by representatives from nine cities—Buffalo, NY; Chicago, IL; Cincinnati, OH; Cleveland, OH; Detroit, MI; Milwaukee, WI; Minneapolis, MN; Pittsburgh, PA; and Saint Paul, MN. The convening was held at the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) offices in downtown Chicago. MPC transforms policies and practices to advance racial and economic justice in the Chicago region’s communities, infrastructure, and public systems. They do this through applied research, collaborative policy development, advocacy, and technical assistance to support implementation.

Convening participants represented a range of cross-sector leaders, and one of the highlights of the two-day event was a panel led by seven executive utility leaders who intentionally opted into the Water Equity Network. The panelists not only shared their hopes for their organizations and communities but were also posed with the question: As you balance regulatory and operational needs and navigate that tightrope, how do you set water equity goals and agendas?

Each of the leaders shared a thoughtful response that illuminated how meeting regulatory needs and prioritizing equity can go hand-in-hand.

Will Pickering, Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority
“It became inevitable that we needed to invest in replacing lead service lines. It was a once-in-a-generation opportunity—but how would we prioritize who’d get their lead line replaced? We made an early decision to replace the full line at no cost to the customer, which really made our program successful. It wasn’t easy, but it was the right thing to do. In Pittsburgh, there are 300,000 residents within 91 neighborhoods, and we’re planning to replace lead lines in each of them systematically. We created the Community Lead Response Advisory Committee and developed criteria to determine which neighborhoods would be prioritized for investment by looking at a variety of risk and economic factors. This is just one example of how we’re scaling down to the neighborhood level to best determine where the dollars flow while acknowledging that the need is widespread. Pittsburgh is an old city with aging infrastructure and thousands of lead service lines, so we wanted to make sure that we were taking an equity approach to how we prioritize the work, which I think has been pretty successful.”

“This is just one example of how we’re scaling down to the neighborhood level to best determine where the dollars flow while acknowledging that the need is widespread.” –Will Pickering

Racquel Vaske, Saint Paul Regional Water Services (SPRWS)
“One of the biggest eye-opening pieces for me in this industry has been the lack of competition that we all take for granted. Without it, we have to push ourselves constantly to not get too comfortable; to look around and learn from those around us. We want our customers to know that we’re doing the best we can do for them in our communities, and that means something different for each and every one of us. Taking a step back and doing thoughtful strategic planning has been key. We have two monumental projects currently in the works: Lead Free SPRWS, our project to remove all 26,000 lead service lines, and a $300 million treatment plant upgrade. With so many moving parts in each of these projects, equity and real community investments could have been an afterthought. Our leadership team has really acknowledged that, and we’ve consistently asked how we could do better and ensure that an equity lens was integrated into all projects—regardless of size and complexity.”

Cathy Bailey, Greater Cincinnati Water Works
“Internally, you have to have hard conversations to educate your employees—standing up to the pushbacks of continuing certain inequitable traditions. For example, I challenged our engineering division to tell me how they selected specific projects, and it turned out that more capital projects were being completed in affluent, predominantly white neighborhoods, mainly because those were the communities most loudly communicating their needs to Council and city leaders. Those neighborhoods repeatedly received water main upgrades while other neighborhoods were ignored or on a slower schedule, so we had to go back and reevaluate that process. Those early exercises really helped change the conversation, leading us to the way we prioritize our lead service line replacement program today.”

“Internally, you have to have hard conversations to educate your employees—standing up to the pushbacks of continuing certain inequitable traditions.” –Cathy Bailey

Brian Perkovich, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago
“We are enhancing our communications regarding projects that we’re doing. We formed a Community Partnership Council to enhance engagement between the community and our staff, helping ensure our community members are aware of us, what we do, what problems are coming up, and how we can improve our service. To fund our projects, we use grant funding, FEMA funding, EPA Section 319 funding, and Community Development Block Grant Funding.”

Oluwole (OJ) McFoy, Buffalo Sewer Authority
“Our first priority in this process was affordability, and then we moved to address water quality and workforce. Throughout the process, we’ve changed our community partners because we need folks with expertise on the ground. For a long time, we followed a business-as-usual approach, and jobs were passed down as if they were inherited. Breaking those cycles and communicating more with the public about how we prioritize projects to ensure they have a say became priorities. To become more transparent, we put all our water testing sites on a map so that everyone could visualize them. We asked ourselves: is testing being done in Black and Brown communities? Why or why not? Let’s call it out. Building trust with your communities doesn’t happen overnight. Trust needs to be earned; it doesn’t happen immediately with your community partners, frontline organizations, or residents. Say what you’re going to do, and do what you say.”

“Building trust with your communities doesn’t happen overnight. Trust needs to be earned.” –OJ McFoy

Sam Paske, Metropolitan Council of the Twin Cities
“Working with partner organizations to preserve water for future generations, we strive to build trust and credibility. We rely on relationships and trust to find solutions that work. The Metropolitan Council is governed by 17 Council Members who represent our region through diversity of language, race, place of residence, immigration, Tribal affiliation, and more. Our impact is increased through diverse representation at the leadership level where decisions are made and throughout the organization. Our throughline is our commitment to preserving a vast supply of clean water that will serve our population now and well into the future.”

Dr. Jennifer Zuchowski, Metropolitan Council of the Twin Cities
“I’ve been inspired to listen to my colleagues and hear the things that they’ve brought forward, and it makes me incredibly proud to be part of an organization that really wants to do the right thing in a region that has large, widespread racial disparities. When we look at what this means for clean water and public health, we must ask ourselves: what is our role and what power and influence do we hold? We should also establish how we can be a key leader—how can we be that anchor institution that successfully puts our plans into action?”

“How can we be that anchor institution that successfully puts our plans into action?” –Dr. Jennifer Zuchowski