Equitable Infrastructure Toolkit
The cost of water is rising throughout the United States as local utilities work to make much needed upgrades to ensure safe and clean water to drink and healthy rivers for all. For the past two decades, water and wastewater service bills have grown much faster than other household expenses, making water unaffordable for almost 12% of our population.
This River Network Equitable Infrastructure Toolkit is a one-stop shop for community stakeholders, advocates, and leaders to:
- Identify the factors that affect water affordability;
- Become familiar with water infrastructure funding and financing mechanisms; and
- Understand the role and impact of local, state, and federal entities and community organizations in addressing affordability and sustainability.
With this knowledge, we hope that you be able to influence equitable water infrastructure investment opportunities, practices, and policies, ensuring that water infrastructure investments is:
- Directed by the community toward public health and clean, safe, affordable, and accessible water;
- Distributed in a way that supports low-income and communities of color most at-risk from environmental harms and historic lack of investment; and
- Supporting the long-term sustainability of our waterways, water systems, and utilities.
A water utility is the entity responsible for collecting, treating, and delivering clean water from a source (e.g. groundwater aquifers, rivers or lakes) to customers, treating wastewater so it can be returned to the environment, and/or managing urban stormwater. In this work, they are responsible for managing water infrastructure (e.g. miles of water mains, the number of metered households in its system, treatment plants, etc.).
Utilities can be privately owned or publicly owned — water utilities might serve one municipality, or many localities within a limited geography; in addition to providing water services within its prescribed areas, water utilities might also sell wholesale water to surrounding communities.
What you’ll learn:
- How water utilities operate and make decisions, and how those decisions can impact water affordability.
- How utilities fund their operations and receive financial oversight at the local and state levels.
- How to explore the various components of a water bill.
- How to assess the structure of a water bill to identify potential areas where your utility could establish or incorporate more equitable practices.
- How to recognize options for both utilities and customers to improve water affordability and equity outcomes.
Water infrastructure includes both traditional, highly centralized and engineered systems as well as distributed components that often rely on natural processes. Traditional infrastructure refers to the network of pipes, tunnels, pumping stations, treatment facilities and stormwater detention ponds that collect, clean, and transmit drinking water to our homes, and collect, clean, and discharge wastewater and stormwater back into the environment.
Beyond these conventionally recognized components of a water infrastructure network, there are other tools, technologies, and techniques that serve to manage, supply, protect, and conserve water. Often referred to as “distributed infrastructure,” this includes: rain gardens, smart meters, drought-tolerant landscaping, efficient appliances, and wetland protection. Using a combination of traditional and distributed approaches can often provide multiple benefits to a community, stretching the value of the investment.
What you’ll learn:
- The effect that aging, neglected water infrastructure has on water affordability.
- How federal, state, and local governments pay for water infrastructure.
- Which government programs can be used to fund infrastructure projects.
- The federal legislative efforts that support affordability and equity outcomes.
There are multiple ways to define “affordability.” Here, affordability seeks to convey that a household can pay for its water without having to sacrifice paying for or accessing other necessities related to housing, transportation, utilities, health care, food, and education. Low- and fixed-income households often face the choice of paying their water bill or paying for other competing priorities, such as medical or other utility bills, such as heat and electricity.
Affordability must be understood and considered in relation to individuals and the financial context of households, not as a standalone measure.
What you’ll learn:
- What causes water to be unaffordable
- How unaffordable water bills affect vulnerable populations
- How governments (federal, state, and local) and utilities can work to make water more affordable
- How community members can influence decision-making related to water affordability
Decision-making and Influence
As a community member, utilities and municipalities are responsible for providing safe, reliable and drinkable water to your taps, and ensuring that your local waterways are clean and healthy: You pay for these services, and these entities are responsible to you. You also should expect that utilities and municipalities have a way for you to communicate your water issues and broader concerns, so they can provide solutions.
This Decision-Making and Influence section offers advocates a practical set of recommendations for learning more about local water infrastructure systems and spotting factors that might compromise water affordability, equity and sustainability. It also provides advocates with a list of action items to influence decision-making at the federal, state, and local/utility levels.
What you’ll learn:
- How to take action by reflecting and learning, connecting with community stakeholders and decision-makers, and advocating for change.
- How to access resources to find state- or utility-specific information related to financing opportunities, policy guidelines, and public meeting/comment requirements.
- How and when to communicate with decision-makers, and get involved during decision-making processes.