In a world facing unprecedented water challenges, infrastructure investment is more important than ever. But it’s not just about building new pipes and treatment plants. It’s about designing water infrastructure that is equitable, resilient, and sustainable; where communities share in the social, economic, and environmental benefits of those investments. It's time to move beyond traditional infrastructure to focus on the interconnectedness of water, people, and equity. In this article, we explore the pressing need to prioritize equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) and environmental justice outcomes in the water sector. We will also explore how water systems are linked to other infrastructure, and why adopting an equity-centered community design approach is paramount.
Water equity and inclusion in the water industry
Transforming the water industry beyond its traditional mechanical boundaries is imperative. It's a shift that transcends data and diagrams; it's about embracing inclusion in terms of public participation, community collaboration and placemaking, workforce development, and diversity of business enterprises. Diversity is not just a checkbox. It's a source of resilience, innovation, co-ownership, and pipeline to economic opportunity. By welcoming a multitude of voices and perspectives that encourage space for people to bring the story of both their lived and learned experiences, the water sector can navigate the complexities of equity.
Centering Equity is essential to the water industry which strives for environmental just outcomes where everyone can participate and thrive. It's different from equality, which treats everyone the same. Equity addresses social injustices and acknowledges the history of unjust decisions and investments, while justice goes further to fix those systems for long-term, equitable access. Equity is the process; justice is the outcome.
Designing with equity in mind and achieving justice, we must understand the historical context of injustices such as racism, economic inequality, gender inequality, disability access issues, land displacement, resource extraction, and lack of investment in communities and infrastructure.
Achieving environmental justice through equity-centered community design demands that we must see the intersection of water infrastructure with community development, design-driven problem-solving, and equitable outcomes.
A great example is the New York Water Environment Association Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) Committee has created its own InFLOW program - Introducing Future Leaders to Opportunities in Water - modeled after the Water Environment Foundation’s established InFLOW program. As a result, this is one of the first state WEF member associations that has both a STEMpath (Student) and CareerTech (trade, non-traditional academic route) track.
This also made an impact through programming at conferences such as JEDI workshop training on Neurodiversity and Unconscious Bias; Panels on Equity in Civil Service and Equity in Leadership Development.
The interconnection of water systems and social infrastructure
Water systems are interconnected with other infrastructure, and water projects can impact various aspects of our lives. Beyond utility, water serves as a catalyst for economic opportunities, enhances our quality of life, and addresses historical imbalances. By comprehending the profound repercussions of water initiatives, we can construct outcomes that are not merely equitable but transformative.
As we shift our focus to environmental justice, it’s imperative to place disadvantaged and historically marginalized communities – environmental justice communities – at the center of water and ecological systems. This ensures that these systems become conduits for delivering social, economic, and environmental benefits to all, transcending policy, and becoming core values.
Our commitment to water equity
Our unwavering commitment to water equity extends beyond our traditional engineering and architectural pursuits. As water and engineering professionals, our mission is to elevate communities. It encompasses partnerships with organizations dedicated to the environment, economic development, diversity, public health, and safety. This commitment is strengthened and supported by organizations like PolicyLink, Hallmark Planning, and the US Water Alliance. Its effectiveness is confirmed by evaluating progress using seven Equitable Development Indicators:
- Community Ownership: True equity begins when communities participate in the ownership and agency in shaping their future. Empowering residents to have a voice with policymakers and utility leaders and buy-in with the Utilities' vision from understanding of the value of water, as well as leading community development initiatives and decision-making ensures not only access to water resources but also equitable service to all.
- Capacity Building: Building community and individual capacity is paramount in our equity-centered approach. Through educational and skill-building programs, we equip residents with the tools they need to actively participate in decision-making, thereby promoting self-sufficiency and self-determination.
- Healthy Communities: A key measure of our success lies in the health and well-being of the communities we serve. Initiatives are designed to create environments that support physical and mental health, access to healthcare, and the overall vitality of the community.
- Heritage Preservation: We recognize the cultural richness of our communities and the importance of preserving their heritage. Through collaborative efforts, we work to safeguard historical sites and traditions, ensuring that as communities grow, they do not lose their cultural identities.
- Sustainable Wealth Creation: Achieving water equity involves creating opportunities for sustainable wealth creation within underserved communities. We support entrepreneurship, economic development, and wealth-building strategies that promote financial stability and prosperity for residents.
- New and Reformed Policy: Our commitment extends to advocating for policy changes that promote sustainable development, equity, and justice. Engaging with policymakers shapes new, reformed policies that align with our vision of a more equitable society.
- Growth Management and Neighborhood Development: Equitable growth and development are central. We collaborate with communities to ensure that growth is managed responsibly, preventing displacement and gentrification while revitalizing neighborhoods to be vibrant and inclusive spaces for all residents.
Incorporating these seven Equitable Development Indicators into our water equity initiatives reinforces our dedication to creating lasting positive change. We believe that by aligning our actions to these indicators, we can foster communities where clean water, social justice and inclusive development thrive.
Water equity and its impact on climate resilience
Centering water equity in our planning, design, and implementation approaches yields [a spectrum of] impactful returns. The benefits include increased access to federal and state funding, regional collaboration, increased participation in contracting, local workforce development, and a holistic approach to community development across infrastructure sectors that address historical injustices. Designing and executing projects with equity approach at their core isn't just a commendable endeavor; it's also a wise one. Investing in water equity can help to:
- Close the gap of equitable clean water and sanitation services for all communities
- Reduce flooding and improve water quality
- Conserve water and mitigate vulnerability to drought
- Reduce the risk of waterborne illnesses
- The Community feels a sense of belonging and ownership in the decision-making process, and the value add it can provide to their community
- Creating opportunities for robust participation
- Enhancing the quality of life within nearby neighborhoods
- Creating long-term job opportunities for existing and new residents
- Maximizes economic opportunity
- Minimizing displacement and construction disturbances
- Preserving culturally and historically significant resources
- Developing and supporting small, local businesses
Designing water infrastructure projects with equity at their core means:
- Engaging with community members and stakeholders throughout the project process, from planning process (stakeholder meetings, project status meetings/public forums, creating advisory groups, etc.) through construction/project completion
- Working with diverse design and construction teams, and creating future opportunities such as accelerator programs, co-ops, training certification, and internships
- Prioritizing co-design to ensure community concerns and needs shape the final design. Water equity epitomizes the fair and just distribution of water resources, opportunities, and power within society. It is indispensable for building resilience against climate change and safeguarding the most vulnerable communities.
Water equity is the fair and just distribution of water resources, opportunities, and power within a society. It is essential for building resilience to climate change and protecting the most vulnerable communities.
The journey toward a more equitable and sustainable water industry is not only commendable but essential. It's a journey that acknowledges the profound interplay between water systems, infrastructure, and the communities they serve. By embracing diversity, equity, and inclusion as guiding tenets towards just outcomes, we can design water projects that enhance our environment and elevate the lives of all people. As we look to our work’s impact on all those who count on us, let’s trust in the process of equity-centered design and collaborate together to build a future that is not only more inclusive but also more sustainable — one droplet at a time.
Walt has served in leadership roles in the management, planning, design, and design services during construction of water, wastewater, and solid waste facilities, as well as experience in community engagement, climate resiliency design, master planning, financial capability assessments, project funding, and environmental permitting. He brings a water equity framework which centers outcomes where all people have access to clean, safe, affordable water service; maximizes the community and economic benefits of water infrastructure investment; and fosters community resilience in the face of a changing climate.