March 11, 2024

The US Water Alliance is thrilled to announce that Erin Riggs, JD, a noted national leader in the field of environmental finance, is joining our team as the Director of our national Environmental Finance Center (EFC). Erin brings a transformative level of knowledge, creativity, and care to every community she collaborates with and is renowned for creating game-changing finance tools that reflect her passion for equitable access to essential infrastructure and transparency and engagement in developing community-led investments.

Many folks on the Alliance team worked with Erin while she was in her former role as Executive Director of the University of North Carolina’s Environmental Finance Center. We are excited for this next stage of our EFC work in which Erin will bring her incredible perspective and experience in the Southeast US to a national scale. Get to know Erin’s water story and the current that brought her to the Alliance through an interview with US Water Alliance CEO Mami Hara.

Mami: Erin, you are joining the ranks of the many Alliance staff who grew up in Florida. Can you tell us about your path from childhood in Florida to becoming an environmental lawyer?

Erin: I grew up on a lake in southern Florida and swam from sunup to sundown every summer day. Even though my parents had to occasionally watch for the one resident alligator to make sure she wouldn’t bother my brother and me, it felt like the safest place in the world to me as a child. Before law school, I taught middle school, and I felt like the best way to help my students was to use my skills to build policies that would better protect our planet. I decided on law school because I wanted the skills to make changes in the environment.

Mami: You worked with Earth Justice and NC Riverkeepers when you practiced law. How did you transition from being an environmental lawyer focused on environmental justice to running the University of North Carolina Environmental Finance Center?

Erin: My real passion for working on environmental finance stemmed from my experiences working in environmental law settings. I was regularly at tables with advocates and environmental protection groups or government agencies trying to find solutions to address environmental issues and concerns. When I was with the Riverkeepers in NC, their concerns were with cleaning up the rivers, and the path toward solutions often followed a traditional ‘polluter pays’ kind of thinking: “If there’s mercury contamination in this creek, we need regulators to step up and we need those who are polluting to pay for mitigation and remedial action.” That works in some situations; however, when I first discovered the UNC EFC in my last year of law school, I suddenly understood the missing piece of those discussions, which is the understanding of who is really going to pay. There is not a deep pocket that can address every situation, and ‘polluter pays’ doesn’t solve all our problems when it comes to financing our basic water sector infrastructure. We need funding and finance solutions that work and take the ability to pay into consideration. Once I started to wrap my mind around where costs end up—whether for a coal ash cleanup, hog waste contamination in a river, or just to ensure that a parent can brush their child’s teeth every day with clean running water—I realized that I wanted to work in environmental finance. And I haven’t had a dull moment since!

Mami: Does your background in law help your work in environmental finance?

Erin: I love delving into policy and governance questions or complicated legal challenges to make sure I am serving people in the best way I can. Just as there is a need for a police officer to understand search and seizure law or a county health department worker to understand privacy laws, a law-informed EFC can help a local water utility leader understand how they can legally create a customer assistance program or avoid legal pitfalls while financing capital improvements.

Mami: What attracted you to the US Water Alliance?

Erin: I have long been a champion of the Alliance’s work, and the Alliance has partnered with EFCs for a long time—in part because it just makes sense. If the EFCs exist to support environmental service providers in accessing funding and utilizing sustainable financing models, then they are a logical and necessary foundation for a sustainable and equitable water future for all.

I’m excited to see the Alliance as a national EFC because so much of what the organization has done and promoted has included ideas and policies that are critical to what regional EFCs have been working on for decades—important needs like affordability, regionalization, One Water, and equity.

Mami: What are you hoping to accomplish at the US Water Alliance?

Erin: I am honored by this opportunity and hope to come into the Alliance ready to both create and support, recognizing that the Alliance is already such a powerful and impactful organization.

As an attorney, I love policy work, and I am hopeful we can continue to identify barriers that limit access to clean water and sanitation or funding and that we can work as a team—as a network-wide Alliance—to change the paradigm and eliminate many of those barriers.

I am hopeful that as the Alliance continues to grow into its role as a national EFC, it can help share the stories of all the EFCs to continue to push out messages and policies that address challenges coming directly out of community technical assistance experiences. Through its broad network, I hope it may deepen the understanding of how hard and critically important it is for many communities to access infrastructure funding.

“If the EFCs exist to support environmental service providers in accessing funding and utilizing sustainable financing models, then they are a logical and necessary foundation for a sustainable and equitable water future for all.” –Erin Riggs

Thanks to the addition of Erin to the Alliance team, we are also pleased to share that Alliance team member Paula Conolly will transition into a new role as Senior Director of Programs. In this role, Paula will oversee US Water Alliance programs, including the Environmental Finance Center, Climate Action, Water Equity Network, and Water Workforce and Leadership programs. The Alliance is thrilled that Paula will be able to bring her superlative management, planning, community-building, and strategic capabilities to a wider range of Alliance efforts!