Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Peer Learning Cohort

River Network Launches the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Peer Learning Cohort

(Important: This application is now CLOSED)


Communities across the United States are facing a drinking water crisis that extends far beyond the examples highlighted by the national media – Flint, Michigan, Toledo, Ohio, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Stories of toxic and contaminated tap water abound, in large part due to an aging, crumbling drinking water infrastructure that the American Water Works Association (AWWA) has warned will cost over $1 trillion to repair and expand over the next 25 years. Annually, for example, millions of gallons of treated drinking water are “lost” from leaking pipes and water main breaks. Meanwhile, many communities face growing concerns about unsafe levels of lead, copper and new “emergent” pollutants in their drinking water, as well as pollutants from their source water such as nitrates, pesticides and nutrients from agricultural runoff or sediment from upstream forest fires. Some communities also face issues of water security in areas where rapid development and water scarcity collide.

Furthermore, because drinking water infrastructure is primarily paid for by revenue generated from ratepayers, communities looking to fund investments to improve the quality of their drinking water face a twin challenge of affordability. According to the Circle of Blue’s Price of Water 2016, a survey of 30 major U.S. cities, the average price of water has climbed 48% since 2010. Rapidly rising water bills have led to mass water shutoffs due to nonpayment in recent years, with cities like Detroit, Philadelphia and Baltimore cutting off access to water to tens of thousands of households. As outlined in The Invisible Crisis: Water Unaffordability in the United States, water shutoffs disproportionately impact residents that are low-income and people-of-color and may lead to consequences such as negative public health outcomes, increased rates of home evictions and foreclosures, and even the removal of children from their homes.

River Network’s Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Peer Learning Cohort

In partnership with Groundwork USA and support from The Kresge Foundation and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, River Network is launching this initiative to support the pursuit of policies and practices that communities can use to effectively engage a broad range of stakeholders and secure safe, clean and affordable drinking water. Community organizations (e.g. community development, public health and environmental justice groups) and watershed groups are uniquely positioned to influence their community’s relationship to water and work with local residents, water utilities and decision-makers to advance safe and affordable drinking water priorities in their communities.

The Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Peer Learning Cohort is a 15-month program that aims to:

  • equip organizations with the information, skills and tools they need to engage in local planning and decision-making processes related to securing safe, clean and affordable drinking water in their communities;
  • provide organizations with financial resources to: 1. support a discrete drinking water project that assesses the extent of local drinking water issues and concerns, promotes civic engagement around drinking water, or pursues equitable solutions to their communities’ drinking water issues; and 2. to support their participation in activities of the Peer Learning Cohort.
  • promote collective learning by the broader network of individuals and organizations working on urban waters by broadly disseminating the lessons learned through the activities of the Peer Learning Cohort; and
  • develop a cadre of national leaders who can demonstrate effective ways to increase community engagement and promote equity in local decision-making related to drinking water management.

Program Expectations

Participating organizations are expected to:

  • Develop a detailed, written Action Plan for your drinking water project in first 1-2 months of the Peer Learning Cohort term and commit to working toward its implementation for the duration of the term, working with other stakeholders/partners in your community.
  • Attend two in-person, two-day Training Retreats. Selected communities must send two individuals to each training retreat. We strongly encourage the second person to be affiliated with one of the Lead Organization’s Institutional Partners, such as the local drinking water utility, local government department (e.g. public health) or a partner organization representing vulnerable populations directly impacted by issues of drinking water quality or affordability.
  • Commit to participating in 1-2 activities to share the results of your drinking water project and lessons learned with a national audience (e.g. writing a blog post, presenting a webinar or at a national conference, etc.)
  • Participate in River Network evaluation activities to help us assess the project’s impact (e.g. webinar and post retreat surveys, interviews, etc.)

Selection Criteria

Applicants must be urban, community-based environmental justice, watershed and/or public health organizations that:

  • operate in an urban community facing documented, suspected or anticipated drinking water quality, safety or security issues that disproportionately impact vulnerable residents (i.e. individuals with a diminished capacity to anticipate, cope with or recover from them);
  • have built credible partnerships with local water utilities, municipal water managers, local officials, and/or other community-based organizations (e.g. environmental and social justice organizations, public health organizations, etc.) that can be leveraged to pursue collaborative and equitable solutions to challenges related to drinking water quality, cost and investments (applications that have demonstrable support of a local water utility partner or local official to collaborate in this project are encouraged and may be more competitive);
  • propose a strategic and impactful project designed to address a drinking water issue that is a priority to community members, to assess the extent of local drinking water issues and concerns, promote civic engagement around drinking water, and/or pursue equitable solutions to local drinking water issues;
  • can demonstrate organizational interest and commitment to working on issues related to the quality, availability and/or affordability of drinking water supplies; and
  • identify issues of social equity as important to their work and can articulate desired outcomes of their work in terms of improved quality of life, social and environmental benefit.

Application Process

  • If you have questions related to this Application of Interest, please send them via email to with the subject heading “Question re: drinking water cohort.” Responses to all questions will be shared via this FAQ page.
  • Interested organizations are asked to submit an Application of Interest (see below) by Monday, March 26 at 11:59 pm EST. Note: We strongly encourage organizations interested in applying to attend an upcoming two-part webinar series on drinking water basics hosted by River Network. You may register for these free sessions here (Part I, March 7) and here (Part II, March 14).
  • In conjunction with the online application, organizations may send 1-2 letters of support from a local water utility, local official or other community partner. Please send these via email to and include “Drinking water cohort letter of support – [YOUR ORG NAME]” in the subject heading.
  • Program team members may schedule interviews with finalists during the week of April 9.
  • Final decisions will be made by the week of April 16. A total of seven organizations will be selected, including three in the Great Lakes region, based on their readiness to catalyze progress and civic engagement in local drinking water issues and on River Network’s ability to create a geographically diverse cohort that supports learning across organizations.

Program Benefits

  • $10,000 grant to support each organization’s project, to support participation in activities of the Peer Learning Cohort, and to support activities to share the results of their learning and their local work with a national audience via presentations, blog posts, articles, etc.
  • Travel stipends to cover the costs for two representatives from each community to attend two in-person meetings.
  • Participation in two, in-person, two-day Training Retreats, regular peer networking calls and various related webinars.
  • 6-8 hours/quarter of one-on-one technical support and mentoring from the program team and other experts.
  • A national audience and platform to share participants’ programmatic successes and experience.

Program Team

The Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Peer Learning Cohort is a project of River Network and Groundwork USA. The Program team has a proven track record supporting organizations’ and municipalities’ efforts to increase civic engagement, to advocate for and develop policies and programs to address water management issues, and to integrate an equity framework into environmental initiatives.