By Gina Wammock, Senior Fellow, US Water Alliance

November 9, 2021

We are delighted to announce the release of the final Water Equity Roadmap from the Alliance’s seven original Water Equity Taskforce teams! An Equitable Water Future: Atlanta is now complete—after a delay attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic—and it is a strong example of what is possible with intention and commitment to improving water equity.

The Atlanta Water Equity Taskforce team is anchored by the Atlanta Department of Watershed Management and populated with members from community-based organizations, social justice organizations, environmental groups, philanthropy, and city departments. They have worked since 2018 to identify barriers to water equity, as well as pinpoint and pilot solutions that reach beyond the typical utility comfort zone. The roadmap identifies four priority areas for action: equitable decision-making, workforce development, affordability, and climate resilience.
An important piece of Atlanta’s Water Equity Roadmap is a forthright background section, calling out systems and structures that have produced inequitable outcomes for people of color in Atlanta. This section also speaks to the unintended consequences—gentrification and displacement—that can result when green infrastructure is put in low-income areas without intensive community engagement and questioning of existing policies.
While developing the roadmap, the Taskforce team confronted an opportunity and a challenge: the nation’s first publicly issued Environmental Impact Bond, announced in early 2019, provided $14 million for green infrastructure to revitalize communities in Atlanta’s low-income, frequently flooded Proctor Creek watershed. How could this funding be invested in a way that better reflected community interests?
The Taskforce team saw an opportunity to pilot new approaches to authentically engage community residents in planning and designing water infrastructure projects in their neighborhoods, recognizing residents’ lived experience and expertise as assets.
Since the Environmental Impact Bond was approved, the Taskforce team’s community-based partners have called on their connections in Proctor Creek communities to weigh in on plans for facility planning, design, and stewardship. First, community-led planning efforts informed the selection of projects for EIB funding. Next, the team went to residents before concept designs were created to talk through goals and options. Residents gave the design team valuable insight into community priorities and impacts they may not otherwise have considered (for example, the need to avoid reductions in already limited street parking). The team is also pursuing a hyper-local workforce strategy, aiming to hire and train local community residents for installation and ongoing maintenance of the green infrastructure facilities in their neighborhoods.
This pilot effort has helped to reshape the Atlanta Department of Watershed Management’s approach to community outreach and project development. Before the COVID-19 restrictions prevented in-person public meetings, Department staff hosted stormwater roadshows across Atlanta. These education and information exchanges provided two-way flows of information, partnering with local environmental organizations to reach out to historically marginalized communities. And the Taskforce team is committed to maintaining consistent and transparent engagement with community residents and partners.
The work is far from complete. Team Atlanta’s roadmap outlines major shifts to improve water affordability, remove barriers to entering the water workforce, and strengthen climate resilience in low-income neighborhoods. All these objectives require a deep commitment to changing existing systems and practices—a commitment that endures through changes in city and utility leadership.
We’re inspired by the high bar the Atlanta Taskforce team has set. May their efforts give more cities the confidence to do the crucial work of advancing water equity.