Analysis of Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion in Water Systems — We invite your feedback

This page is a summary of recode’s research, findings, and outreach relating to diversity, equity, and inclusion to date . It’s under construction and will continue to be updated over time as our understanding evolves. If you have a story of your own lived experience or feedback to share to improve this page, please contact us.

Recode’s Definitions

Diversity:  People with different lived experiences are contributing together.
Inclusion: People with different lived experiences have different needs that are recognized, welcomed, and accommodated to facilitate their contributions.
Equity:  Everyone has what they need to be successful, recognizing historic and present disparities.

Who Needs Equitable Water Systems

To perform our work in an equitable way, we need to recognize who lacks privilege in water systems in the United States by looking at group memberships and understand the ways in which they lack privilege:

Impacted Community Members: For the purposes of this work, impacted community members include (but may not be limited to) people who self-identify with one or more of the following group memberships:

Impacted Community Membership Water-specific equity considerations and antidotes
People Living with Low Income(s) May be targeted for development, gentrified, then involuntarily displaced. Likely to have difficulty paying their utility bills, which can lead to houselessness or losing any children they might have to state custody (after the water is turned off and a structure is deemed uninhabitable without water service per the State Plumbing Code regulations).

Antidotes:
* Consult and incorporate the ideas of with low-income people from the outset when developing assistance and affordability programs.
* Utility providers should develop a water affordability plan, which could, for example, include allocations for households combined with a tiered rate structure where higher rates are paid for users above their allocations to subsidize low-income households. Or, develop other programs (e.g. Detroit Blue Ribbon Commission on Affordability 2015 report, Phildelphia’s income-based water affordability program). There are ways to deliver affordable water and ensure revenue stability for utilities.
* Develop an assistance program or waivers that take into consideration a customer’s ability to pay instead of relying on a legal definition of “affordable”.
* Change the plumbing code so that a lack of water does not result in the property being deemed uninhabitable (similar to electricity and heat utilities).
* Pass a policy or resolution that water and sanitation is a basic human right (e.g. CA Water Law section 1.1.106.3).
* Create a constitutional amendment that defines a Universal Right to Water, similar to the statute in California except require 5.3 gallons of safe potable water per person per day (World Health Organization recommendation) be delivered free to everyone. When water cannot be turned off, this means the plumbing code clause that deems a home “unhabitable” when water service is turned off will never apply and protective services will have no cause to take custody of children.
* Pay living wages for all jobs based on a localized calculation of the cost of living.
* Implement or advocate for Involuntary Displacement* Prevention Recommendations for East Portland. See the website for East Portland Action Plan’s guidance in numerous languages.

People of Color (POC)

POC communities are often located in places where access to clean air, water, and/or land is limited, often as a result of historic redlining and bias in the banking and loan industry.  They may also be concentrated in these areas because systemic and individual racism dictates what jobs they can have (e.g. Latinx community concentrated in the Central Valley of CA). Sometimes, they choose to move into more polluted places in order to access culturally relevant community and services.

Historic and present disinvestment in POC-dominated communities may result in limited or no access to a public piping network, making water and sanitation management more expensive. In addition, racism is “literally bad for your health“, which lowers immune resistance to water borne disease. Income disparities on a national level exist.

 

Antidotes:
* Consult with and incorporate the ideas of people of color to learn about and address specific racial-based barriers when implementing water and sanitation policies, procedures, and programs..
* Pay living wages for all jobs based on a localized calculation of the cost of living.
* Reform the banking and loan industry.
* Require, track, and enforce the awarding of design and construction contracts to qualified “minority” contractors (e.g. Oregon OMWESB certification plus Oregon Department of Transportation’s Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program).
* Create a constitutional amendment that defines a Universal Right to Water, similar to the statute in California except require 5.3 gallons of safe potable water per person per day (World Health Organization recommendation) be delivered free to everyone.

People who are Indigenous/Native American

While many indigenous/Native American people may not live on reservations, those indigenous/Native American people in the United States choosing to live on reservations are confined in way that makes self-determination and control of natural resources difficult. Historical treaties and the US Constitution define how indigenous/Native Americans agreed (and continue to agree) to share land they traditionally used for survival in return for sovereignty, access to historic lands for survival, and specific support from the federal government but are poorly implemented.

Today, water quality and availability on tribal lands is impacted by limited budgets and long waiting lists for the U.S. Indian Health Service to fulfill their obligations to assist financially and technically with water systems. Water quality on tribal lands is also regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which also has limited funding for implementing programs. Many tribal communities receive water and wastewater services from cities and states outside their reservations with non-indigenous governments that have little understanding of the historical and current context of the lived experience of indigenous and Native American people or the (poorly met) obligations of the federal government.

Because tribes historically often accessed areas significantly greater than their own reservation areas, tribal members continue to hold an interest in environmental quality outside their reservation. As with communities in any watersheds, surface and groundwater resources are also impacted by upstream and in-watershed development, and unlike communities in all watersheds, tribal communities are disempowered to change laws because reservations are considered a separate country (i.e. sovereign nation) from the United States and/or Canada and Mexico. This is complicated by the fact that they are also recognized as U.S. citizens and numerous laws have been passed by the U.S. government without the input or consent of Tribal peoples.

Income disparities on an international level exist and indigenous/Native American people everywhere also share in the experience of the impacts to People of Color above.

Antidotes:
* Consult with and incorporate the ideas of a variety of tribes when implementing water and sanitation policies, procedures, and programs. Remember that all tribes cannot be lumped into one and different tribes may provide different (and conflicting) guidance.

People who are Female-bodied and/or Women Women and female-bodied people are currently society’s primary care givers, taking care of family members when they are disabled or become sick from tainted water, which can endanger their ability to keep jobs. Lack of access to clean water can impact the health of pregnant female-bodied people and cause premature births and miscarriages. Groundwater tainted with nitrates causes a life-threatening condition called blue baby syndrome. Income disparities on a national level exist.

 

 

Antidotes:
* Consult with and incorporate the ideas of women and female-bodied people , and specifically some mothers and caregivers, when implementing water and sanitation policies, procedures, and programs.
* Pay living wages for all jobs based on a localized calculation of the cost of living.
* Implement source control measures that prevent excess nitrogen from entering groundwater, especially from farming and septic systems.
* Implement universal health care.

People who are Transgender Access to sanitation is a safety issue when someone else decides they’re not in the “right” bathroom. As a result, transgender people report they refrain from using bathrooms in public at all causing an array of health impacts including urinary tract infections and dehydration, which can lead to many other poor health outcomes. Income disparities on a national level exist (e.g. “One study found that the average earnings of transgender women workers fall by nearly one-third after transition“).

 

 

Antidotes:
* Consult  with and incorporate the ideas of transgender and non-gender people when implementing water and sanitation policies, procedures, and programs.
* Pay living wages for all jobs based on a localized calculation of the cost of living.
* Replace women’s and men’s rooms with numerous single-user non-gendered stalls/rooms as the standard design approach. Handwashing stations can be in a central non-gendered location.
* Replace gendered signs with pictures of what plumbing is behind each door (e.g. toilets, urinals) and add a supportive sign letting the public know that anyone can use any bathroom of their choosing.

People who are Houseless Access to water and sanitation is limited or non-existent. Access to water is likely to be surface water, which is low quality for drinking. Houseless people experience a higher rate of waterborne diseases such as Hepatitis A as a result of not being able to wash their hands. Income disparities on a national level exist.

 

Antidotes:
* Consult and incorporate the ideas of with houseless people when implementing water and sanitation policies, procedures, and programs.
* Pay living wages for all jobs based on a localized calculation of the cost of living.
* Build more affordable housing by funding culturally-specific non-profits to meet the needs of different communities and cultures.
* Use transfer development rights to increase the amount of housing allowed under the zoning code.
* Provide access to water and sanitation in public places (e.g. water fountains and Portland Loo) and/or to houseless camps (e.g. Tacoma, WA ran a water line and provided other access).

People whose Second Language is English (ESL) Important signage and alerts regarding the safety of water for drinking or recreation, assistance programs, and other information is often only available in English. Income disparities on a national level exist.

 

 

Antidotes:
* Consult with and incorporate the ideas of people whose second language is English when implementing water and sanitation policies, procedures, and programs.
* Pay living wages for all jobs based on a localized calculation of the cost of living.
* Have printed materials translated and/or offer material online in a format that will allow it be translated by web applications (e.g. text on a webpage, and not a downloadable pdf).
* Offer interpretation services for all public events.
* Provide materials to english-speaking school-age children who can share information with their non-English-speaking family and friends.

People who Rent their Housing Renters have no control over replacing old pipes or installing filters for health reasons, such as lead poisoning.

 

When landlords pay a renter’s water bills and stop, the renter is the person who suffers a water shutoff. “In some cases this leads to displacement of tenants, hardship, disruption of family life and potential homelessness for those who cannot afford either the cost of their landlord’s old water bills or the cost of renting and moving to other premises.” Income disparities on a national level exist.

Antidote:
* Consult with and incorporate the ideas of renters when implementing water and sanitation policies, procedures, and programs.
* Implement state and local programs to replace all lead pipe service lines.
* In between renters, require landlords to provide any safety and health upgrades to their property that may be needed.
* Similar to large private water companies, bring publicly owned water agencies under the regulation of “the Home Energy Fair Practices Act, which prohibits denial of service based on unpaid bills of another person“.

People with a Physical Disability Access may be physically limited to water and sanitation due to spatial designs of kitchens, bathrooms, and public buildings, sidewalks, and the toilets themselves (e.g. steps to a riser for dry toilets to access nutrient material below), which can lead to health impacts such as urinary tract infections and dehydration, which can lead to more problematic disease. May have a digestion-related illness (e.g. Irritable Bowel Syndrome) that requires them to plan their day around access to sanitation. May lack physical capability for maintenance of decentralized systems. Income disparities on a national level exist.

 

 

Antidote:
* Consult with and incorporate the ideas of people with physical disabilities when implementing water and sanitation policies, procedures, and programs.
* Public utilities could build, own, and/or operate decentralized systems, seamlessly integrating them into existing centralized systems. To ensure they don’t lose ratepayers, utilities could require that the themselves perform maintenance on all systems whether they are privately or publicly owned. Most of a utility bill is the base rate for operations and maintenance, so they would charge ratepayers to operate and maintain everything from single-family-residential rainwater harvesting systems up to conventional wastewater treatment plants and everything in between (like publicly-owned versions of Hassalo on 8th). In this way, people with disabilities that prevented them from maintaining decentralized onsite water systems could still benefit directly from them.
* Make sure doors aren’t too heavy.
* Provide door handles instead of knobs.
* Design in the United States should follow the guidance of the latest (2010) ADA Standards for Accessible Design.

People with a Cognitive Disability May lack capability for use or maintenance of decentralized systems. Income disparities on a national level exist.

 

Antidote:
* Consult with and incorporate the ideas of people with cognitive disabilities when implementing water and sanitation policies, procedures, and programs.
* Develop or use design solutions that are familiar and automated (e.g. dry toilet that can be used exactly like a conventional toilet where necessary sawdust is automatically added.)
* Public utilities could build, own, and/or operate decentralized systems, seamlessly integrating them into existing centralized systems. To ensure they don’t lose ratepayers, utilities could require that the themselves perform maintenance on all systems whether they are privately or publicly owned. Most of a utility bill is the base rate for operations and maintenance, so they would charge ratepayers to operate and maintain everything from single-family-residential rainwater harvesting systems up to the conventional wastewater treatment plants and everything in between (like publicly-owned versions of Hassalo on 8th). In this way, people with disabilities that prevented them from maintaining decentralized onsite water systems could still benefit directly from them.

People with a Visual Disability  May lack capability for maintenance of decentralized systems. Wayfinding is most often in the form of written signage, forcing a person with visual limitations to ask for and memorize directions. Lighting may be inadequate to navigate restroom. Income disparities on a national level exist.

 

 

Antidote:
* Consult with and incorporate the ideas of people with visual disabilities when implementing water and sanitation policies, procedures, and programs.
* Public utilities could build, own, and/or operate decentralized systems, seamlessly integrating them into existing centralized systems. To ensure they don’t lose ratepayers, utilities could require that the themselves perform maintenance on all systems whether they are privately or publicly owned. Most of a utility bill is the base rate for operations and maintenance, so they would charge ratepayers to operate and maintain everything from single-family-residential rainwater harvesting systems up to the conventional wastewater treatment plants and everything in between (like publicly-owned versions of Hassalo on 8th). In this way, people with disabilities that prevented them from maintaining decentralized onsite water systems could still benefit directly from them.
* Design in the United States should follow the guidance of the latest (2010) ADA Standards for Accessible Design.
* Highlight a step or stair edge and include railings and adequate lighting.
* Alarms should include a sound.

People who are Immigrants May lose ability to use culturally relevant practices (e.g. rainwater harvesting). Information about opportunities is often only provided in English, which may or may not be an immigrant’s first language (see English-as-a-Second-Language above). Income disparities on a national level exist.

 

 

Antidote:
* Consult with and incorporate the ideas of immigrants when implementing water and sanitation policies, procedures, and programs.
* Provide outreach materials in multiple languages.

People who live in Rural Areas “Last mile” residents have no access to a public piping network, making water and sanitation more expensive for rural people than it is for urban people or causing a public health crisis (e.g. Alabama’s “Black Belt”). Access to high quality drinking water may be more limited than other areas because of polluted groundwater (e.g. nitrates, fracking chemicals) or surface water. Groundwater tainted with nitrates causes a life-threatening condition called blue baby syndrome. Income disparities on a national level exist; however, the poverty rate for rural dwellers is lower than for urban dwellers.

 

Antidote:
* Consult with and incorporate the ideas of rural dwellers when implementing water and sanitation policies, procedures, and programs.
* Regulate the practices that taint groundwater and surface water with nutrients and enforce violations more aggressively.
* Develop assistance programs applicable for development of onsite water systems in rural areas.

People who Live in Coastal Areas Access to high-quality drinking water may be limited by polluted groundwater (i.e. saltwater intrusion).

 

Antidote:
* Consult with and incorporate the ideas of coastal dwellers when implementing water and sanitation policies, procedures, and programs.

Youth Youth have little to no control over where they live and how much money their parents or guardians make. Most youth are prohibited from getting a job that might help alleviate poverty. All of these make them more vulnerable from a water access perspective. Children are more susceptible to health effects of tainted water (e.g. blue baby syndrome, lead poisoning, acute respiratory problems, inflammatory bowel disease) future access to water likely to be limited.

 

 

Antidote:
* Consult with and incorporate the ideas of youth when implementing water and sanitation policies, procedures, and programs.

Seniors Seniors are on a fixed income, so a “small” increase in any of their bills may have significant impacts on their ability to pay. Income disparities on a national level exist.

 

Antidote:
* Consult with and incorporate the ideas of seniors when implementing water and sanitation policies, procedures, and programs.
* See low-income antidotes.

People who are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and/or Queer Income disparities on a national level exist. A gay/male couple make less money on average than a heterosexual couple. A lesbian/female couple makes less money than a gay couple.

 

Antidotes:
* Consult with and incorporate the ideas of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and or queer people on their lived experienced.
* Pay living wages for all jobs based on a localized calculation of the cost of living so that sexual preference is not a factor.

People who are not College Educated Income disparities on a national level exist.

 

Antidote:
* Consult with and incorporate the ideas of those without a college education when implementing water and sanitation policies, procedures, and programs.
* Provide different levels of certification and/or opportunities that allow people without college degrees to design, construct, and maintain green infrastructure and water reuse systems (e.g. Verde’s Landscape Contractor Business, US Water Alliance’s national briefing paper on equity)

People with a Auditory Disability May not hear alarms intended to alert people when decentralized systems need maintenance. Income disparities on a national level exist.

 

 

Antidotes:
* Consult with and incorporate the ideas of people with hearing disabilities when implementing water and sanitation policies, procedures, and programs.
* Public utilities could build, own, and/or operate decentralized systems, seamlessly integrating them into existing centralized systems. To ensure they don’t lose ratepayers, utilities could require that the themselves perform maintenance on all systems whether they are privately or publicly owned. Most of a utility bill is the base rate for operations and maintenance, so they would charge ratepayers to operate and maintain everything from single-family-residential rainwater harvesting systems up to the conventional wastewater treatment plants and everything in between (like publicly-owned versions of Hassalo on 8th). In this way, people with disabilities that prevented them from maintaining decentralized onsite water systems could still benefit directly from them.
* Design in the United States should follow the guidance of the latest (2010) ADA Standards for Accessible Design. For instance, alarms should include a visual component.

All As a result of biased institutional policies throughout our social systems, many people in these groups are disempowered to make decisions about their own health and welfare as it relates specifically to access to water and sanitation and generally, as it relates to many other issues.


Some Sources of Inequity in Water Systems

In addition to understanding the people who lack privilege, we want to understand the systems that drive inequalities in water systems.

There are many different sources of historic and/or current systemic inequities to consider:

  • Bank lending practices limit who can contribute their vision of sustainability by limiting who can expand their business services or become a developer (e.g. people of color, women). For example, from the Oregon Department of Transportation Civil Rights Department disparity study of 2011: “Majority-owned construction firms” — in Oregon, this means White-owned construction firms — receive more than 50 times as many loan dollars per dollar of equity capital as Black firms with the same borrowing characteristics.
  • Drinking water supply quality and sanitary sewer service availability varies across the country. Poor quality and service are more often correlated with low-income and/or people of color communities.
  • State funding allocations are often less for rural versus urban for jurisdictional program management, which is likely to result in different water quality and availability outcomes.
  • Combined sewers are usually older and/or less wealthy communities versus separated storm and sanitary sewers that are usually in newer and/or wealthier communities.
  • There is a lack of holistic regulatory authority (e.g. groundwater is often regulated by water quality jurisdictions who have no authority over the agricultural practices that pollute groundwater).
  • Facilities with air quality/odors are located in low-income neighborhoods to avoid backlash from people with enough time and money to oppose its location.
  • In some places, non-gendered bathrooms are illegal per the building code.
  • Industry pollutes and the community pays (e.g. PVC pipe manufacturers)
  • Privatizing utilities changes the distribution of income and expenses (e.g. shifting costs & income for water treatment to site-scale projects takes away revenue from the municipalities shared systems).
  • There can be a lack of accountability when choosing utility alignments (One oil utility related example that would pollute drinking water is the Dakota Access pipeline currently being constructed through Standing Rock Sioux disputed land against the wishes of that community).
  • Hazardous/toxic sites are often located in people-of-color dominated and/or impoverished neighborhoods AND POC and impoverished people move to those neighborhoods after the facilities have been sited there because this all they can afford or they crave the cultural benefits of being with people who share similar values or look like them.

Bibliography

Making Sustainable Sanitation Inclusive for Persons with Disabilities. Jun 2011. Published by United States International Council on Disabilities.