By Clare Auld-Brokish

August 26, 2022

The compounding impacts of climate change and deepening social divides bring new challenges for the water sector in America, particularly for marginalized non-white communities already overburdened with economic, environmental, and health challenges. A 2019 US Water Alliance report found that race is the strongest predictor of water and sanitation access and that poverty is a key obstacle to water access. For these communities in the coming years and decades, fundamental concerns of water affordability, safety, and security will continue to grow unless action is taken today.
The Alliance’s framework to address these concerns and advance water equity in America is outlined in its 2017 report, An Equitable Water Future, which is organized around three pillars of action: 1) to ensure all people have access to clean, safe, affordable water services; 2) to maximize the community and economic benefits of water infrastructure investment; and 3) to foster community resilience amidst a changing climate.
Shortly after publishing this framework, the Alliance partnered with seven of its member cities and together in 2018 formed the Water Equity Taskforce, a national network of seven cross-city and cross-sector peer exchange groups organized around implementing the water equity framework to advance workforce development, affordability, and economic opportunity for the water sector.
Almost four years later, the Water Equity Taskforce, now known as the Water Equity Network, has grown to include 33 member cities from across 20 states. During this time, the network has enhanced and deepened its mission to provide an avenue for water representatives and experts around the country to connect and exchange ideas about best practices in the sector.
“The Water Equity Network has been a supportive space for community leaders, institutions, and other stakeholders to come together to break apart and understand big systemic problems, and to act on real solutions. This commitment to creating equitable access to living wage employment in Milwaukee’s water sector is critical for the health of our community, the health of our waterways, and for building a better Milwaukee for future generations,” says Joe Fitzgerald, Water Equity Network member and Water City Program Manager at Milwaukee Water Commons.
In the fall of 2021, a survey of the Water Equity Network was conducted to measure the progress of the Network cities toward attaining the equity goals they set in partnership with the Alliance. Below are a few stories of this progress.

Milwaukee, WI: Advancing taskforce recommendations for an inclusive workforce 

The collaboration and exemplary work of the Milwaukee metro area Water Equity Taskforce formed the foundation of the current Water Equity Network. The Milwaukee taskforce specifically addressed the area’s need for a water workforce that is more reflective of the community it serves. For two years, members from utilities, nonprofits, neighborhood associations, workforce development organizations, and educational institutions across the Milwaukee metro area met to assess workforce hiring practices and investigate the factors that limit entry by members of marginalized communities. The resulting suite of recommendations for the area are laid out in the taskforce’s 2020 report, An Equitable Water Future: Milwaukee.
Putting key recommendations from this report into action, Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD), Milwaukee Water Works, Veolia Water Milwaukee, and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources hosted the first One Water, Our Water: Explore Milwaukee Water Jobs Fair in May 2021. To reduce barriers for applicants, MMSD adopted a “Ban the Box” policy to remove questions about applicants’ criminal records from job applications.
The taskforce is developing a charter to support continued comprehensive implementation of its 2020 recommendations, including a specific focus on inclusive hiring practices. This focus lies in two areas: 1) ensuring that training programs for water sector jobs are paid and lead directly to employment opportunities; and 2) equitable procurement that supports small local contractors and establishes equitable and inclusive policies such as community benefits agreements.

Austin Water: Building a climate change-ready city means acknowledging historical injustices  

The city of Austin, Texas, is conducting ongoing work to ensure justice and equity in its services in communities that have been subjected to the city’s institutionalized redlining policies and zoning practices. These policies and practices denied primarily Black, Hispanic, and Latino communities equitable access to city amenities and served to increase their environmental health risks. Intensifying citywide droughts and flooding in East Austin will only exacerbate the barriers these communities face to water access.
Austin Water employed equity analysis tools to strengthen its commitment and actions to prioritize Black, Hispanic, and Latino communities. The result of these analyses were two plans: its 2018 Water Forward Plan and the development of an Austin Water climate plan that matches the ambitions of the City of Austin’s Climate Equity Plan. Austin Water is also working to incorporate equitable practices into its operations and services, which includes prioritizing water access assistance for low-income customers and residents of large apartment complexes after storms as well as appropriately compensating community participants for their participation in the development of an Equity and Affordability Roadmap.

DC Water: Internal culture change: a new avenue of water equity  

Embedding social justice into its workplace culture is one of the most important aspects of equity to DC Water. This includes external initiatives like its Business Development Plan that prioritize contract procurement from women- and minority-owned businesses and its recent collaboration with the Advanced Energy Group to integrate carbon reduction, equity, and resilience into its projects. For the organization’s internal equity programs, success means breaking down barriers to communication, jumpstarting meaningful conversations about what equity looks like in the workplace, and empowering its employees to see themselves in their work and as contributors to their community.
In the fall of 2021, Benny Starr, the then-inaugural US Water Alliance Artist-in-Residence, joined DC Water staff for a series of organization-wide listening sessions to kick off their internal equity work. Topics ranged from water equity and workforce development to affordability and climate change and provided employees the opportunity to share their experiences with equity as well as how they were juggling health, safety, and equity amidst a global pandemic and changing climate. The listening sessions were capped off by a boat ride down the Anacostia River to immerse the group in the history of the area.

Conclusion: The future of water equity is collaborative  

These stories are just a few examples of the ways in which Water Equity Network members are making strides across the three pillars of an Equitable Water Future. Woven into all three pillars and the successes shared above is an emphasis on community engagement and the recognition that water organizations and utilities are built from the same communities they serve. Network members understand that this means encouraging continuous dialogue and reflection with their communities—whether through inclusive and creative external communications, community advisory groups, or inclusive hiring practices.
For many others, participation in the Network has jumpstarted meaningful conversations about what equity looks like in their workplace and has provided employees an opportunity to bring more of themselves to their work. Members report greater organization-wide collaboration and engagement in the processes of learning how to incorporate equity in their offices and their communities, as well as building out organization-wide equity roadmaps and strategies.
The Alliance and Water Equity Network team thank each member of the Network for their continued enthusiasm and dedication to advancing equity in the water sector. We extend a special thank-you to the members included in this Water Equity Network update for allowing us to share their stories.
Join us at the 2022 One Water Summit in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, from September 13 –15 to hear more from each of our Network members. The Summit will be an excellent opportunity to continue building community within the Network and across the Alliance, highlight more Network successes and ongoing projects, and ensure this work is seen by folks from all corners of the water sector. See you all in Milwaukee!