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

Recode recognizes that the environmental movement to date has been steeped in exclusivity and wishes to be a leader in inclusive processes to further the adoption of ecological water and sanitation systems throughout the country. This page is a summary of our research, findings, and outreach on 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:

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

Group Membership   Water-specific equity considerations and antidotes
Low-income Most likely to be targeted for development, gentrified, then displaced. More likely to have difficulty paying their utility bills, which can lead to losing their children to state custody (after the water is turned off) and/or houselessness.

Antidotes:
* Utility providers should develop a water affordability plan, which 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.
* 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.
* See Involuntary Displacement* Prevention Recommendations for East Portland for East Portland Action Plan’s guidance in numerous languages.

People of Color (POC) POC communities often located in places where access to clean air, water, and/or land is limited 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). 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:
* 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.

Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Queer Income disparities on a national level exist.

Antidotes:
* Pay living wages for all jobs based on a localized calculation of the cost of living.

Transgender & non-gender Access to sanitation is a safety issue when someone else decides they’re not in the “right” bathroom. 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:
* 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.

Houseless Access to water and sanitation limited or non-existent. Access to water likely to be surface water, which is low quality for drinking. Income disparities on a national level exist.

Antidotes:
* 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).

Women

 

Women are currently society’s primary care givers, taking care of family members when they 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 women and the viability of their babies. Groundwater tainted with nitrates causes a life-threatening condition called blue baby syndrome. Income disparities on a national level exist.

Antidotes:
* 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.

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

Antidotes:
* 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 so that it is more likely to be translatable.
* Provide materials to english-speaking school-age children who can educate their non-English-speaking family and friends.

Not college educated Income disparities on a national level exist.

Antidote:
* 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)

Renter Renters have no control over replacing old pipes for health reasons, such as lead poisoning. Income disparities on a national level exist.

Antidote:
* 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.

People with a physical limitation Access may be physically limited to water and sanitation due to spatial designs of kitchens, bathrooms, and public buildings and sidewalks. 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.
People with a learning limitation May lack capability for maintenance of decentralized systems. Income disparities on a national level exist.
People with a visual limitation  May lack capability for maintenance of decentralized systems. Income disparities on a national level exist.
People with a hearing limitation Income disparities on a national level exist.
Immigrants Information about opportunities is often only provided in English. May lose ability to use culturally relevant practices (e.g. rainwater harvesting). Income disparities on a national level exist.

Antidote:
* Provide outreach materials about environmental, social, and economic opportunities for advancement in multiple languages.

Rural “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:
* Regulate the practices that taint groundwater and surface water with nutrients more aggressively.
* Develop assistance programs applicable for development of onsite water systems in rural areas.

Coastal Access to high-quality drinking water may be limited by polluted groundwater (i.e. saltwater intrusion).
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.
Seniors Seniors are on a fixed income, so a few “small” increases in any of their bills may have significant impacts on their ability to pay. Income disparities on a national level exist.

Antidote:
* See low-income antidotes.

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.