UBW Campaign

Universal Basic Water – Coalition Building Approach

The Universal Basic Water Project is a natural segue from recode’s current work to provide social, financial and code-related solutions to ease water re-use. We’ve started several programs and tools to meet the United Nation’s 2030 food and water goals and achieve Paris Energy Accord in a sustainable and fair way.

As part of a 3-year effort funded by the Scherman Foundation, recode asked ourselves, “How do we equitably shift our cultural paradigm to one that values water. How do we achieve the resilience that we’ll need to thrive under a changing climate?” As we thought about this, Monica Lewis-Patrick of We the People of Detroit taught us about the lived experiences of communities impacted by poor access to water, as a result of water shut-offs. 

This caused us to ask, “How can we minimize suffering (families split up, houselessness, Hepatits A outbreak) from water shut-offs?”

Through work on Universal Basic Water, we can answer these questions.

Universal Basic Water is a collection of approaches. To ensure personal and public health, everyone in the United States is guaranteed a minimum amount of drinking water for free.


The Universal Basic Water Project will add an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that:

  • Declares the people’s right to potable water;
  • Defines a numerical value and timeline for delivering a quantity of potable water that is free to the consumer;
  • Compels utilities, environmental quality regulators, and other governmental centers of power over water at the local, regional, and state level to meet their water delivery goals in an equitable way.

AND, in practice, is a framework to:

  • Practically address the minimal water needs to ensure the individual and public health of diverse populations in a culturally relevant way regardless of the pattern of development (e.g. rural, exurban, suburban, urban), natural conditions, or their identity, identity expression, or status.

By adding a US Constitutional amendment, citizens, non-citizens, and tribal nations will all be guaranteed this new right.

Campaign Background

#20Liters is just a little bit more than this 5-gallon bucket. Sunglasses included for scale (and because Universal Basic Water is just that cool).

Dubbed by staff at the Michigan Science Center in a 2018 meeting, the “#20Liters Campaign” is our current working title for the public outreach campaign. Twenty liters of free potable water is based on the World Health Organization’s analysis[i] that 20 liters (5.3 gallons) of water is needed per person per day to “take care of basic hygiene needs and basic food hygiene” in an emergency. This does not include laundry and bathing. At this time, recode thinks that using a standard for emergencies is a reasonable bar and a good starting point for discussion on requiring the provision of free water – whether delivered by tap from a utility or drawn from a well or elsewhere[ii] . If we find through the convening process (see next section) that 20 liters per person per day isn’t enough, we’ll change the amount of water that should be specifically called out in the constitutional amendment and change the name of the campaign. Ideally, a much greater volume of water will be accessible at low- to no-cost to utility customers.

Recommendations for implementing equitable and affordable water programs for utilities and other key decision makers will be a key work product. For those on wells and surface water, a separate work product will compile recommendations for improving environmental quality to specifically address drinking water sources. For various land development patterns, a decision support tool will inform under what conditions onsite water reuse systems would be beneficial for deep water conservation and protection of “first-use” water sources in nature.

Incorporating Lived Experience

Recode intends to convene a national conversation on Universal Basic Water and water affordability in order to gather, organize, and implement the many ideas that will be needed to work at different scales in different patterns of development in different watersheds under different sociopolitical structures.

Hearing the lived experience of people represented by We the People of Detroit caused recode to launch this effort. To solve the problem of not knowing what we don’t know, we will continue to intentionally create a space to incorporate the lived experiences of people from impacted communities[iii]. We often hear from others that there aren’t enough “qualified” people to consult on such technical issues. We think this may not be the case and that impacted community members with skills may not engage for other reasons, which we are working to overcome by developing one-on-one relationships through self-awareness and showing up to establish trust. On the other hand, recode has already started to hone our skills in intentionally incorporating the perspectives of non-technical people into our process[iv], which will be critical to the success of the #20Liters Campaign. We recognize our privilege as a White-led environmental organization and intend to use that privilege to bring impacted community members, legislators, decision-makers, technical professionals, non-governmental organizations, utilities, and others to arrive at the best possible solutions for a range of natural, social, and built environment conditions.

Building Consensus

Recode knows of two successful consensus models, one with a small group of up to 8 people that recode’s program manager volunteers for and another, the East Portland Action Plan, with 50 – 60 people sitting in meetings. We believe this success can be replicated in the Universal Basic Water Project process.

Recode is committed to building consensus because, majority voting tends to sideline the priorities of those in the minority. Since we want to intentionally and strategically uplift the messages of impacted community members whose lived experiences often give them a different perspective than majority or mainstream community members, consensus causes us to continuing exploring options until we find ones that everyone agrees on. At first, consensus will be hard to reach and time-consuming. We expect there could be much misunderstanding about what we are doing, why we’re doing it, or how to achieve our goal of Universal Basic Water rights. Some stakeholders will likely be entrenched in a certain way of thinking informed by their own lived experience, which could make it difficult to understand and internalize others’ perspectives. Later, after we’ve spent some time learning from each other and have built more trust, consensus will be more easily, and more frequently, reached.

Recode has a NEW Nexus Toolkit for regulators, designers, advocates, and more!

Why is This Important to Recode?

Out of all our projects and approaches to accelerating the adoption of sustainable and equitable water systems, the Universal Basic Water Project most fully incorporates recode’s holistic framework we call the “Nutrient-Energy-Water (NEW) Nexus”. These systems integrate centralized and decentralized water conservation and reuse, nutrient recovery, and energy-generating approaches and technologies that provide for the needs of people and watersheds. Framing the discussion about water from a public health and human rights perspective will resonate for decision makers and community alike, propelling the paradigm shift we seek.

Timeline & recode’s strategy

Like our growth as an organization, we suspect that passing a constitutional amendment could be a long-term process that goes on well beyond the period of time when current staff are retired. On the other hand, extreme and worsening weather events that either bring too little water or too much to a region are just as likely to spark widespread support for such an amendment.

Recode is uniquely positioned to lead on debunking misunderstandings about cutting edge, sustainable water technologies and we are open to having our policy statements and programs influenced by leaders – including impacted communities – in climate, water, and defecatory justice. We expect to build a coalition with diverse organizations working in the realm of governance, water, public health, housing affordability, environment, climate change and more.

In addition, within 20 years, recode plans to grow our own collaboratives in each of the other 49 states. We will grow our staff at headquarters in Oregon to support those collaboratives with funding, organizational structure, and strategy. Collaboratives will work in self-determined ways most appropriate for their local and state levels to meet the mission of recode and always ready to work strategically and supportively together at the national level.

Contact Us To Be a Partner

Contact Maria Cahill at recode at maria@recodenow.orgor call Pat Lando at 503.893.9584 if you’d like to explore partnering with recode on the Universal Basic Water Project.


[i] http://bit.ly/20L-min

[ii] Wells are often considered to be free sources of potable water already; however, many groundwater sources are unsafe for drinking and while water users may not pay a utility company for their water, the full cost of permitting, building, maintaining, and upgrading onsite systems like wells is usually the sole responsibility of the system owner. Recode intends to address rural issues as robustly as urban ones. Currently we think this will be through a combination of technology and approaches implemented on a watershed scale as well as environmental quality policy and enforcement to improve surface and groundwater quality.

[iii] Recode keeps an ongoing analysis of specifically how impacted communities are disparately affected by inequities in water and sanitation systems. Impacted communities are defined on our webpage: http://www.recodenow.org/diversity-equity-inclusion-in-water-systems/ .

[iv] Recode welcomes feedback from partners and stakeholders at any time during the strategy-drafting process.