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By Karl Russek, Director of Programs and Applied Research

The Water Center at Penn

October 22, 2020

The built environment – and water infrastructure in particular – is often a stark physical manifestation of the deep systemic racial and social inequities with which our country continues to struggle.   Over our history, the biases that resulted in these inequities have at times been unconscious, but often all too intentional.  

In less resourced communities across the country, the provision of basic water, wastewater and stormwater services is increasingly at risk.  This is true despite the fact that there are few public services more fundamental to public health and safety, community social and economic sustainability, and climate resilience.  Communities facing deep systemic inequities also grapple with aging infrastructure and limited financial and technical capacity to maintain and improve existing systems, let alone move toward a more integrated water management approach.  Many of the poorest municipalities in the country – whether in riverine or coastal environments, have long grappled with flooding as a “fact of life”.   Obviously, this comes at great economic and social cost.  Initial underinvestment in flood protection or stormwater management infrastructure begets ongoing commercial and social disinvestment as those with the resources to do so seek “higher ground”.   

The personal and societal cost of these issues would be an ongoing national tragedy even without the spectre of climate change.  But the problem is increasingly compounded by the effects of climate change, which in many parts of the country already include more or more intense precipitation, increased storm surge, tidal flooding, sewage backups, and the like.

These problems are not limited to large metropolitan centers. There are many poorer small cities and towns, often in the shadow of larger metropolitan areas, where complex social factors and governance issues are at play, and where there is diminishing community capacity to manage these water related challenges.   While the larger goal of systemwide transformational change in this realm remains appealing but complex and elusive, we mustn’t forget the daily realities of the thousands of urban, peri-urban, and rural communities which have been subjected to decades of underinvestment.    Elected officials and managers responsible for water management in these communities are often elderly, part-time, and/or working on a volunteer basis.   Many are aging right along with their infrastructure, and the older model of generational knowledge transfer and apprenticeship has become increasingly fragile as the water industry has professionalized and the demographics of their communities change.   These decisionmakers often yearn to do more but are stuck bouncing from crisis to crisis.  While deeply committed to their communities, they may lack the time, knowledge, expertise or funding to get ahead of their communities’ water management challenges.   

While there are any number of excellent well-intentioned state, federal, and nonprofit programs upon which many underserved communities have come to rely, the need far outstrips the current array of funding and assistance programming, and information on how to access these programs is often not uniformly reaching local decision makers and system managers, who may not even know that such services exist.   Those communities with resources to identify and pursue this assistance are more likely to find it, while an increasing number of communities fall further behind.   Many of the programs and initiatives themselves are hamstrung by complicated processes and often struggle to find enough “take-up” in the communities they set out to help.    

Decision makers in these communities often ask, “Where do I start?”  Given the complexity and scale of the problem, and all the potential solutions, how can these communities assess the available resources and find a path forward?  There are a range of resources developed by regulators, water industry groups, academic institutions and NGOs that aim to support water system decision makers.  But they typically are not conceived to target decision makers in under resourced, low capacity communities, or designed with a proper appreciation of the context in which decision makers in these environments operate.  Additionally, the guides currently available, often by virtue of their funding sources, aren’t in a position to objectively judge the strengths and drawbacks of the different funding and assistance buckets available.  

With the generous support of the Kresge Foundation, and in partnership with Water Now Alliance (“WNA”), the Water Center is working to generate a thoughtful, objective, straight-talking guide for local elected and appointed decision makers on how to get started in navigating the dizzying array of options for water related technical assistance and funding resources available.  The guide, which will be hosted alongside WNA’s Tap Into Resilience Toolkit,  is specifically designed for local managers, board members, and elected officials responsible for local storm water management systems in under-resourced urban areas, and is designed to be relevant to such decision makers across the US. 

The guide will identify and provide objective assessments of available resource options that facilitate the process of:

  • Better understanding the physical, financial, and operational state of integrated water system(s) 
  • Identifying and prioritizing regulatory, capital and operating needs
  • Ensuring systems are equitably financed as well as financially resilient
  • Taking the latest climate science into account to ensure any investments are properly scaled for long-term success
  • Knowing which innovations and/or strategies are likely to have the best chance for success; and
  • Accessing available outlets for technical assistance and funding  

The guide will also support local decision makers in thinking through what elements of their internal operations – asset management, technical challenges, compliance issues, stakeholder engagement – need to be put in order before pursuing any particular financing opportunities.      

While a single resource cannot solve all issues, this guide can serve as the first in a series of resources targeted to addressing critically important water issues in overlooked communities across the country.   The Water Center is committed to exploring models for providing much needed direct technical support for these communities at a scale where significant positive impact is possible.   Part of our goal in this work is to help focus the attention of the Penn community and our broader group of stakeholders on the following critical issues to be researched, quantified, and confronted:

  • The physical, financial, and social impacts of climate change are increasingly being felt
  • These impacts are placing an increasing strain on our nation’s aging water infrastructure 
  • These impacts are, and will continue to, disproportionately affect poorer communities and communities of color
  • Without large scale, thoughtful intervention the historic and existing systems of water infrastructure finance and management will continue to aggravate these impacts  

The Water Center looks forward to addressing these issues through our research with an expanding network of stakeholders and collaborators.

 

Karl Russek has over 25 years of experience in the areas of legacy pollutants, natural resources damage assessment, emerging environmental risks, industry/regulatory interface, and stakeholder management in the United States and globally. He holds a Master of Science degree in Environmental Quality Science from the University of Alaska where he focused on assessment and restoration of freshwater systems. He most recently founded and managed the international environmental business for a leading global insurer.