By Miriam Hacker PhD
Senior Research Implementation Lead
The Water Center at Penn

Interest in the United State’s water and wastewater infrastructure has been renewed with the Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework. While interest fluctuates, the challenges remain: aging infrastructure, lead service lines, environmental justice challenges related to underserved communities being adversely impacted, and an urgent need to improve communities’ ability to sustain and repair infrastructure services in response to extreme events. 

Pennsylvania is no exception. The Water Center at Penn has spent the last two years capturing the state of water resources and management of infrastructure in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Recent recommendations have highlighted the need to address lead service lines, flood management across both urban and rural areas, and the impacts from acid mine drainage. But the narrative doesn’t end with challenges. As we become more aware of the difficulties, there also exist opportunities for coordination across efforts. In the last year or so, our team has been working with local entities in Southwestern Pennsylvania to develop a regional water network. But what contributes to a successful locally-led initiative? While we are still in the development process, a few key attitudes have contributed to the progress being made:

  • Center and support local initiatives. The Water Center has taken a neutral position in the SW PA region. Our work relies on active participation from local water leaders to identify needs and share their own experiences with what has worked in the past. Our goal has been to develop opportunities for leaders to connect and to highlight existing initiatives rather than creating redundancy in parallel activities. Through a series of meetings and planning efforts, a vision statement for the region has been developed by local leaders to see that ‘Southwestern Pennsylvania water resources are sustainably, equitably and collaboratively managed to protect public health and the environment, enhance community and system resilience, and deliver economic, ecological and social benefits for all people of the region.’
  • Be willing to test the energy for particular topics. There is an urge to do everything right now, but it can be tricky prioritizing the next best step. Network members have focused on specific water-related activities related to their work and the conversations have progressively expanded to how these activities are present in the region. Instead of trying to address everything at once, we focus on where excitement or energy is sparked in network meetings, to continue “pulling the thread” and gradually work towards actionable steps. While the network’s capacity continues to expand, each of these more detailed conversations presents an opportunity to take a bottom-up approach, going after specific targets and incremental change across the region that can build into significant momentum for funding opportunities and coordinated efforts.
  • Experiment and adapt to what works. The pandemic drastically affected efforts to develop the network and in a matter of weeks, all activities were moved to a virtual setting. How do you build community through a screen in front of you? Thanks to support from our partners at the Institute of Conservation Leadership, we were able to experiment with different ways of engaging virtually with people. One major benefit from this adjustment has been the creation of a more inclusive platform for engagement. A virtual approach makes input from a variety of stakeholders more accessible – especially considering the large geographic spread of the region. 

There is a renewed interest in our country’s water resources and infrastructure with the infrastructure bill. While we wait to hear more details about its rollout, we turn our attention to more local efforts and support the ongoing efforts that leaders are working through on a day-to-day basis. 


Miriam Hacker Ph.D. is the Senior Research Implementation Lead at the Water Center. Miriam comes to the Water Center with a background in civil engineering from the University of Washington and a passion for understanding social implications from water and wastewater issues. Her professional experience includes stormwater regulation at a local level and strategic coordination in international development. Her doctoral research in civil engineering investigated the coordination of temporary accommodation for people seeking asylum in Germany, Sweden, and Lebanon. Most recently, her work as a postdoctoral researcher with the Swiss Federal Institute for Aquatic Science and Technology (Eawag) focused on the socio-technical barriers for the adoption of on-site water reuse at a city level in the United States. As cities look to adapt water and wastewater infrastructure to climate change, Miriam’s passion lies in the organizational and institutional response to these initiatives and their impacts on the local community.