In Climate resilience, Drinking Water, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, Green Infrastructure, River and Water Organizations, River Restoration and Protection, River Science, Water conservation, Water law, Water policy

A Historic Year: What it Means for Our Future Work with Water

On November 7, 2020, the US presidential election was called for former Vice President Joe Biden. This election was historic for many reasons — occurring during an ongoing global pandemic, a country reckoning with continued racial injustice, and the increasing impacts of climate change, to name just a few. In the weeks since his election, President-elect Biden has made several announcements that shed light on the incoming administration’s priorities for their first days in office. Organizers, advocates, and other interested parties have been waiting in the wings for this moment to lay out their varied and overlapping lists of priorities, with the hopes that progress will be made starting day one.

As we at River Network have navigated the impacts of not only this year, but the last several years, one thing has remained constant: the belief that everyone should have access to safe and affordable drinking water, healthy rivers, and thriving waterways. As we look ahead to the transition to a Biden presidency this month, we look to our network and what we know about the new administration’s priorities to identify a clear way forward in the fight for clean water.

Transition Priorities: The New Administration 

The incoming administration has identified four top priorities for its initial days in office: COVID-19, economic recovery, racial equity and climate change. While these priorities intersect with each other and touch River Network’s work in different ways, the opportunity to influence the administration’s approach to climate change is the most logical place for direct impact on the work we and our network are able to carry out.

Biden publicly states on his transition site that “climate change is the challenge that’s going to define our American future” and “meeting this challenge will be a once-in-a-century opportunity.” The new administration’s transition platform includes commitments to investment in infrastructure, including “green spaces and water systems,” and prioritizes sustainable growth and improving public health through clean air and water. They also identify environmental justice as a key pillar of all of their work, with a commitment to ensure it is “a key consideration in where, how and with whom we build — creating good, union, middle-class jobs in communities left behind, righting wrongs in communities that bear the brunt of pollution, and lifting up the best ideas from across our great nation — rural, urban and tribal.”

While the details are unclear, these visionary statements leave a clear opening for advocates to fill in the blanks and ensure equitable access to, recreation in, and use of our natural spaces and resources.

Transition Priorities: Our Network

Many in our network have been preparing for this moment to put our priorities front and center and make the case for clean water protections. For most, these demands are intrinsically linked to the climate crisis and inequities that are exacerbated by increasing natural disasters. We know that forest fires in the West are increasing with a warming climate with direct impacts on our water quality, possibly for years to come. We also know that climate-driven increases in rainfall have led to more combined sewer overflows and increased urban flooding — raising public health and water quality concerns.

Here’s what we’re hearing from our network:

  1. Water and recovery from COVID – public health, climate change and economic development. We cannot talk about priorities for the next four years without taking stock of the previous four years, including all that 2020 brought to bear. Increasing climate disasters coincided with an economic and public health emergency unlike anything we’ve experienced in close to a century. Priorities for the administration’s transition and the next several years focus most on supporting our communities through recovery from devastating loss. This includes a turn toward a more intersectional approach to our issues, recognizing that any one issue does not exist in a vacuum. Groups have identified a very real opportunity to address issues of water security, climate resilience and economic development as a unified strategy. This includes substantial investment in our water infrastructure, including green infrastructure, to ensure that clean and safe water is accessible by all. Investment in this space also creates opportunities for sustainable job growth and economic opportunity and inclusion as the water sector grows and adapts to our changing climate. Many of our partners are emphasizing the need to prioritize communities hardest hit by not only climate change but economic loss or stagnation for implementation of climate resilient programs and job development. Providing opportunities for economic growth and a cleaner, safer environmental future is essential to a just transition.
  2. Incorporate climate resilience strategies into all water programs. Water advocates have recognized the need to incorporate climate resilience strategies into all areas of their work and have emphasized this in their transition plans. This includes water infrastructure, where advocates continue to push for increased adoption of green infrastructure to mitigate the impacts of climate-related flooding. Additionally, organizations like the Pacific Institute have called for climate change to be considered as part of all water system management and planning, including consideration of greenhouse gas emissions. This is again part of prioritizing an intersectional approach to our climate and broader world to ensure we advance toward a cleaner, safer future for all.
  3. Prioritize equitable access, influence and support for disadvantaged communities. The conservation community has been reckoning with the legacy of environmental injustice and lack of diverse representation for many years. A more acute focus on this issue has emerged again out of the wreckage that 2020 brought for many communities. We know that the impacts of climate change and lack of water access have and continue to be disproportionately felt by those least represented in positions of power — namely Black, brown, Indigenous and low-income communities. Many groups are not only underscoring the need to ensure funding and programming be delivered equitably, but that representation from these communities at decision-making tables be prioritized. 
  4. Increase funding to states and local governments. Key to implementing these recommendations is providing ample funding to state and local governments. State and local programs are where the rubber meets the road — assessing the current context and capacity of their communities to design and implement the most responsive programming — be it to increased flooding in the midwest and southern United States or drought and wildfires ravaging the western region of the country. Many groups are emphasizing this need as they have for the last several years. This piece emphasizes a specific need for the incoming administration to work closely with members of Congress to prioritize funding for water resilience and access.

Moving Forward

As an organization led by our network, this means that the needs and priorities of our partners guide the priorities of River Network. What we know from the work of our water champions over the last several years and continuing for the next several is that equity and justice must be at the center of all that we do. Investment in climate resilient infrastructure and technologies must also prioritize those most impacted by climate disasters and failing water infrastructure to address the inequities our systems have perpetuated. We, along with our network, are cautiously optimistic about the opportunities ahead based on the priorities the Biden Administration has laid out in their transition plans. River Network will continue to support our network in efforts to protect and ensure access to our most vital resource — water.

Here are a few of the transition plans we’re referencing:

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