Chrystopher GarzónWater Policy Analyst

    Chrystopher Garzón

    Paw Paw, Michigan

    Chrystopher Garzón (he/him/él) was born in Puerto Rico, grew up in New York City, and settled in southwest Michigan. His interest in water infrastructure stems from a desire to increase access to public financing and funding for the most in-need communities. He channeled his energy at the University of Michigan to earn a Master of Public Policy, specializing in the nexus of science, technology, & public policy. Before joining the Alliance for the Great Lakes, Chrys was a research associate and program officer in a New York-based foundation analyzing federal fiscal policies and providing support to partners. He joined the Alliance to advance equitable policies that deliver safe, clean, affordable water for people and wildlife across the Great Lakes region. In his free time, you can find Chrys exploring new foods, training at the gym, or doing house projects!

    This interview was conducted by Ayana Harscoet on April 11, 2024. Press play to listen and find the full audio transcript below the audio player.

    Ayana: Hi, and welcome to River Network’s Meet Your Network: hearing from our network members in their own voices. River Network envisions a powerful and inclusive movement that ensures abundant clean water for all people and nature to thrive. We believe joy and hope for our planet flows through our rivers.

    My name is Ayana Harscoet, and I’m the Communications Associate at River Network. I use they/them pronouns, and I live and work in Brooklyn, NY on unceded Lenape land. You can learn more about the lands you live and work on at

    Last month, I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with Chrys Garzón, who’s a water policy analyst with the Alliance for the Great Lakes. Chrys and I are both relatively new to working in the water space, so it was great to hear his perspective, what he’s learned so far, and what he’s excited to grow into more deeply in the future as he continues his work in clean water and equity. So without further ado, here’s Chrys. 


    Ayana: Thank you so much for meeting with me this morning, Chrys. I’m really excited to have a conversation with you, if you would like to briefly introduce yourself before we jump in. 

    Chrys: Yeah, thanks for inviting me. I think this is a good opportunity to not only talk about myself, but also maybe hear from others once this gets published. My name is Chrystopher Garzón. I’m a water policy analyst with the Alliance for the Great Lakes, in our Clean Water and Equity team. I primarily work on State Revolving Fund (SRF) advocacy, which is the primary program or vehicle for the federal government to invest in water infrastructure. That’s largely what I’ve been doing for the last 2 years.  

    I’m originally from New York, but I went to the University of Michigan for both undergrad and grad school. That’s also where I met my partner, which is why I’m here now, because she’s from Michigan. We moved here and bought a house, and it’s been a learning curve – living in the city, now a homeowner. For the last year and a half, I’ve been with the Alliance working on regional issues as they pertain to State Revolving Funds, water affordability, lead service line replacements, and all that jazz. The Alliance actually has a partnership with River Network, and I primarily work with Erin. She’s a superstar. That’s a little bit about me. 

    Ayana: Awesome, thanks for sharing. Yeah, we love Erin! One thing you shared with me earlier was that you haven’t been working in the water world for too long, or you sort of made your way here from other work. I’m curious, why did you transition to water? What brought you here? 

    Chrys: For sure. Funny enough, I think a lot of it stems from my partner, Rebecca, and her influence. She actually works for the National Wildlife Federation, so it’s a lot of environment, a lot of water stuff. Previously, I worked for a New York-based foundation. There, I primarily did research around the federal budget. I was a program officer. It was a great opportunity, a great job, but definitely not what I went to school for. I was primarily curious about the economics of utilities. But like I mentioned, when my partner and I decided to buy a house a couple of years ago, I think I just got lucky. I felt like it was a good opportunity to change jobs. I came across this opportunity with the Alliance. I was aware, through my job, of all the federal funds going into water infrastructure. I thought, maybe this is an angle to continue my interest in economics, but also more focused on utilities. So it was partly moving, and partly trying to pivot professionally. 

    Ayana: That makes sense. It’s really cool to make that move to a completely new place and come to understand that place, to start setting those roots down. What scale are you mostly working at? Are you pretty local, mostly state level, or dabbling in some federal stuff too? 

    Chrys: The Alliance is a regional org, but staff are unofficially assigned to a particular jurisdiction or topic. So in regards to the State Revolving Funds (SRF), that’s largely nationally focused. But on other work, I primarily focus on the state of Michigan on water affordability issues. I also support my colleagues in Illinois and Ohio as it pertains to lead service lines or stormwater. My cup of tea is primarily water affordability in the State of Michigan, and we’re looking to expand that throughout the region. But as you may have heard, it’s a very touchy subject. One solution in one area might not work in another area, and there’s all the challenges that come with that. But I think I dabble in federal, state, and regional issues. 

    Ayana: That makes sense that they would all intersect in those ways. You can’t take one of those levels and think about it alone. I’m curious to hear more about your work in water affordability, especially as it pertains to water equity and making sure that access to water is available to folks who have historically been denied that access. What sorts of work are you doing right now, what’s coming to the surface the most these days? 

    Chrys: Like I said, I’m only a year in, but I’ve learned a lot. I think the issue is, with water affordability or water utilities, it’s such a decentralized utility. It’s not like energy – at least In Michigan, there’s no central entity holding all these utilities accountable, so everyone’s doing their own thing. With the exception of the Low-Income Household Water Assistance Program (LIHWAP), which happened because of COVID, there hasn’t really been much federal or state support to help people with their water bills. In other states there are, and some states and municipalities have programs, but they’re so few. So you think about how there’s not much help. And then you move on to, What’s driving the issue?  

    Well, Michigan, like many states, has experienced a decline in population, which is another way of saying there’s less people to charge to get money to invest in infrastructure. At the same time, in the state of Michigan, there’s also a history of leveraging water infrastructure policy to disenfranchise certain groups of people, primarily Black people and people of color. So there’s all these things overlapping on each other. On top of that, in the state of Michigan, there aren’t stormwater fees. So we pay for water to come to us and for the water we use to get clean, but then there isn’t anything accounting for your rainfall. That’s just a cost that municipalities need to eat. But somebody needs to pay. So then, again, all these things put together, it’s just putting so much pressure on households to meet the rising costs. Utilities have no choice but to pass on those costs because they’re not getting help from anywhere else. And at the end of the day, we all need water. It’s gonna be a mess. I mean, of course, you can get wells and things like that, but that introduces a whole array of issues. But what regulations are ensuring that that water is safe? 

    So when I’m talking about water affordability, I’m primarily talking about public water systems where we can actually influence in a comprehensive approach rather than a house-by-house situation. Essentially, there’s a lot of need, but there’s little help. There are a lot of factors driving this issue, so naturally, there’s a lot of disagreement on how to approach the issue, even within the state of Michigan. 

    Ayana: I really appreciate that context because I don’t have a lot of that particular regional context for understanding. But that makes a lot of sense. Do you think – the folks moving out, fewer people to charge, a lot more pressure – is that a Michigan thing, or is that a regional thing? Where do you see that happening the most, if you had to guess? 

    Chrys: I think I’m just coming to terms with it now as I’m getting older and seeing that I need to solidify my family or home. People maybe just see states like Michigan and others that are not big cities as perhaps not the ideal place to move to. I think it largely revolves around job opportunities. “Am I able to settle here? Start a family?” Perhaps not. So then people start leaving. But there’s more to it. It kind of feeds into itself. People leave, so then infrastructure starts aging and deteriorating, and then people see that and they’re like, “Oh, I don’t want to live there.” It’s like a feedback loop. The state of Michigan is aware of this idea of trying to incentivize young workers to stay in the state. I forget the right stat, but most college graduates leave the state, and that’s not good for the state. And I think other states in the US are facing the same thing – the large winners tend to be California, Illinois, and New York, of course – but that’s where the jobs are, to bring it full circle. 

    Ayana: Yeah, absolutely. That makes so much sense. Again, it’s not just water; there are so many factors why people are leaving. I feel like having been in college not too long ago, no matter where you go to school in the country, there’s a similar exodus to the biggest city near you, and then West coast, East coast. 

    So then, when it comes to your work, what kind of work do you do on the day-to-day? Are you doing coalition building with folks or looking into the policy side of things? What does a typical day or week look like for you right now? 

    Chrys: Yeah, a typical week right now – I have this project, a state profile project. I’m essentially trying to understand the policy landscape of the region, specifically Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Michigan, regarding SRF, water affordability, lead service lines, etc. That state profile also includes information on who are the active NGOs, like us, the Alliance, or who are active CBOs, like We the People of Detroit, and who are the relevant agencies and statutes that are affecting any campaign we may try to pursue. So, essentially, a lot of my day-to-day is research and recording information to inform where the Alliance can plug in, broadly speaking – but only in Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, and Michigan. 

    Beyond that, we’re involved in the Water Equals Life coalition, which is aiming to establish a statewide water affordability program. That coalition involves groups like the National Wildlife Federation, We The People of Detroit and Freshwater Future. Through that work, I primarily lead outreach efforts. That’s a twofold task. I primarily support our group in outreach to utilities because, like I mentioned, there isn’t a centralized entity that regulates utilities. So essentially, we need to individually review, “This utility is under the purview of this municipalities’ committee,” or XYZ. And everybody does it differently. So I support identifying that so that then other coalition members understand who to approach, because in the state of Michigan, you can’t approach the utility themselves because they don’t have the power or authority to say that. Usually, it’s like a commission above them. But of course, that effort also involves community leader outreach because of course there needs to be buy-in from the community. A lot of the Water Equals Life Coalition is about elevating the priorities from people who are experiencing these issues.  

    A lot of effort has involved outreaching to communities and the oversight of utilities to essentially get them to buy into this idea of, “Hey, let’s promote water affordability at the State level.” Proving harder than we thought, of course, because even within Michigan, what may work in Detroit does not work in Kalamazoo, or maybe what works in Grand Rapids doesn’t work in Paw Paw. I live in Paw Paw, which is a 3,500-person community, and Grand Rapids is the second largest city in the State. So I guess you could summarize by saying it involves a lot of organizing when it comes to the Water Equals Life Coalition work, a lot of research when it comes to my individual state profile work. 

    Ayana: I’m a little familiar with Water Equals Life, but it’s cool to hear more about the context of where they fit into everything. On the one hand, we can easily say there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. But I imagine once you acknowledge that, then you’re like, now we have to figure out how to tailor this approach to all these different cities or communities. What sorts of issues or challenges do you feel like tend to come up? Do you see resistance? Do you see capacity issues ? I’m sure there’s many factors involved. But are there any common themes you’re noticing? 

    Chrys: Yeah, I think capacity is definitely an issue. I think it’s because the utilities are so decentralized. There’s maybe 2 or 3 people actually managing utilities. And this is a general statement, it’s not exact. But some of these folks are actual technical workers managing machinery. Whereas maybe a utility may need a researcher to sit, look at the numbers, crunch them, see, How can we use all the money the utility collects to maybe reorganize our restructured to be more equitable? I mean, that’s certainly one constraint. Another constraint is, even if you have the people to do that, like I mentioned earlier, the user base is declining. So the utility is getting less and less money every year. So how could they realistically entertain an idea of discounting certain households’ monthly bills? But also, like I mentioned, for the last few decades, there’s been a decline of federal funding. The federal government used to provide a lot of funding for infrastructure and specifically water infrastructure, but a lot of that has declined over the last few decades at the same time that these user bases are leaving. The infrastructure is already aging, so again, it’s another pressure of less money coming in, so there’s less room for utilities to figure out a solution. But there’s also politics to it. I think maybe perhaps the politics are misplaced. I think it always goes back to, Can the utility or the community afford to do something? Even though they may want, can they? Can they really afford to do it? And I think it always goes back to that, despite sometimes seemingly falling back to political lines. 

    Ayana: Yeah, I think unfortunately, what you’re sharing is kind of what I hear from folks all across the country, and all kinds of places: that capacity is an issue, and funding is an issue. And I think those are really hard to work around because you can’t just magically change that overnight. Well, where does your work on SRF fit into all of this? 

    Chrys: Yeah. So like I said, I was in New York. And then I’m hearing $55 billion are flowing through SRFs, and I’m like, that’s so much money, what is this program? I have never heard about this program. So when I started looking at SRFs, I started seeing, oh, this program basically touches all these issues. It’s meant to promote the replacement of lead service lines, it’s meant to promote water affordability, it’s meant to promote resiliency, and GSI (Green Stormwater Infrastructure) and all these things. But then it sort of seems like maybe the SRFs are being administered in a way that’s not meeting the current need. For example, maybe to be eligible for certain funds, there’s a population cap. But that population cap may not be relevant to how much need the utility has. Essentially, the rules of the game, of the SRFs, can sometimes be misaligned or contradictory. And the end result is that larger utilities end up being the ones that can benefit from these programs, when the programs themselves were designed to help these smaller utilities. So my interest in that was like, Maybe we can modify the rules or how the program is administered, and then that could trickle down to better outcomes. That’s a theory that doesn’t really happen overnight. 

    But as I started learning more and more, of course, every state has a unique SRF administration. So boom, we’re back to one size does not fit all. So then you need to understand the unique landscape, the unique players in each state, to inform what sort of strategy may result in the outcomes you want. But I think generally, things like limits on the amount of funding that you can receive from SRFs or population caps on who’s eligible for programs, the definitions of disadvantaged communities, how those communities or even types of projects are prioritized in the program — these are all different dimensions that need to be considered. So through my work in SRF, we largely focus on a select few states to either lead or support advocacy in that space. I focus on Illinois and Michigan advocacy, and I’m trying to move towards Ohio. But it seems like a whole new beast — like I said, I’m acquainted with Michigan, Illinois, but I need to know, learn, and understand the Ohio landscape to see what we can say, because what’s working in Michigan may not work over there. And, in fact, may run against what communities are prioritizing. And then, if we do that, then there’s no point to this because the whole point is, what are communities needing? What do they want to see? 

    Ayana: Yeah, absolutely. I think the rules of the game framework is a good way to put it. Someone’s making these rules, and along the way, you’re like, well, this isn’t really getting us where we want to be. How much do you feel like you’re able to do that modification or to try and reorient to the original goals of the program? What do you think you’re able to do within the top-down requirements or rules that you’ve mentioned? 

    Chrys: I don’t think there’s a limit to what we can do. It’s just a matter of do we, the Alliance, CBOs, other partner NGOs, do we all have the capacity to do what needs to be done? Because, you know, one thing is analyzing how the program is run. Another thing is organizing partners and CBOs to see what sort of advocacy we’ll want to drive. Another dimension is, at the end of the day we’re all people. We need to build a relationship with utilities that is somewhat friendly, and not hostile, so that they’re receptive to our recommendations. It’s a lot of moving pieces. A lot of my previous world, my economic training, was towards policy, research, or data analysis. And I’m seeing now how that’s not it. I gotta go out there and talk to CBOs, too. Maybe it’s do the research and data analysis, but then bring that to CBOs. See how ground truth, what they’re experiencing. Then, once you sort of have a strategy, then approach utility. Say, “We’ve researched this. We’re hearing this. Where can we meet in the middle?” So I’m realizing it’s more than just policy research and analysis – it’s a lot of organizing. It’s a lot of relationship building and maintaining in order to move the needle a little bit. 

    I would say, as a little success story, here in the state of Michigan: the SRF administrating agency, which is Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), they’re very receptive to work with people. In fact, through this multi-pronged approach – we do the research, we submit public comment letters that have the support of CBOS – we then have routine meetings with EGLE to discuss these. Nothing has really come about of it yet, but in my mind, it’s a vote of confidence that we are making progress because they are being receptive to our ideas. Our last cycle, in 2023, we recommended the idea that maybe EGLE should publish the public comments that they receive. And they did! That seems like a little thing, but transparency in the SRF has been a big issue here. So the fact that they’re starting to do that to me is a sign that we’re making progress. Of course, this is a baby step. There’s a lot more work to be done. But the multi-pronged strategy is progressing.  

    Ayana: It’s great to hear that transparency is improving and folks are being receptive to that feedback. I think one of the hardest things with working with partners and coalition-building is when you have one big goal that you’re working towards, but then all these different ideas of how to get there, or maybe slightly different outcomes that you’re trying to reach. That’s great to hear. Do you feel like you yourself are interested in transitioning to more of an outreach or organizing role? How do you see improvements about connecting research to organizers happening? Do you feel like that’s being put into motion? Do you think there’s still work that needs to be done? 

    Chrys: I’m certainly interested in it, this connection between research and outreach. I think it’s something that we need more of, which is why I maintain this work in my profile. But it is a new muscle, you know. This idea of like, oh, now I’m shifting my brain from crunching numbers to building relationships. It’s a new muscle to stretch, but I think it’s a muscle that’s needed. So to answer your question, I do think there’s more needed of the translation of the actual research and policy recommendations to CBOs, but also at the same time translating the CBO needs and priorities to policy recommendations. So I do see it as not maybe a gap – I mean, there’s plenty of people doing this work, but the water space could benefit if more people jumped into this space, this idea of connecting research and community priorities. 

    Ayana: Yeah, and I appreciate you describing it as a 2-way street. It’s not just the researchers telling the communities or organizers, “Here’s the deal, go, do this.” You need to be listening to that feedback, and what’s working and what’s not. Have there been any particularly meaningful or exciting moments in that realm of your work so far? Do you feel like you’ve made any connections that you feel really good about? Or were there any little moments, or like you said, a success story that you feel really excited or proud about? 

    Chrys: Not too many policy wins, I would say. But I have in the last year and a half seen my personal confidence grow because I am able to better understand the programs, which then means I can help and answer questions from people saying, “Hey, what is this program?” So that’s a personal win for me. I think, in terms of like policy wins, or progress in this space, there’s still a lot more work to be done. I gotta be honest it, can be a little taxing – you do all this research, but maybe it doesn’t match the community needs. Or maybe you understand the community needs and you elevate them, but then there’s no policy consensus around it. So it can be very taxing in the sense of, Did I even accomplish anything? But of course I am, and of course others are. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. So that’s also a mindset I need to adopt.  

    Ayana: Yeah. I appreciate you sharing that because I think all of us are in this work because we want to make huge changes. And those happen because of a ton of tiny ones. And even one person you’re speaking to, that creates a ripple. Thank you so much for sharing all of this. Maybe to close us out, I’ll ask if there’s anything that’s on the horizon, or anything you’re looking forward to this year that you’re working on. 

    Chrys: The state profile work has been taking me a while, so I look forward to completing that towards the summer, which will then inform our strategic planning for the Alliance. So I’m excited to see my work being operationalized. I think that will be a win for me. But maybe more close to the horizon, I’m looking forward to River Rally! 

    Ayana: Oh yeah! I wasn’t sure if you were coming, I was going to ask. But that’ll be great. It’ll be nice to meet you in person. 

    Chrys: I’m excited to meet. Because you know, these days, everybody’s on Zoom. So I’ll be meeting a lot of people for the first time in person. 

    Ayana: Yeah, that’s a great thing to look forward to. I’ve actually never been to Rally, because I joined River Network in January of last year, and we didn’t have one last year. So it’s gonna be my first one. 

    Chrys: Yeah. My first one, too. 

    Ayana: Yeah, it’ll be wonderful. Well, I’m really grateful you shared so much. I feel like I got to understand a little bit of your work and hear a bit about what’s happening in Michigan and in the Great Lakes and beyond. Thank you so much for sharing these stories with me and letting me hear a bit about your work. 


    Ayana: One more time, a huge thank you to Chrys for joining me on this conversation. If you’d like to learn more about the Alliance for the Great Lakes, you can visit their website at

    And finally, if you enjoyed this Meet Your Network episode, you can find more conversations and connect with us at Thank you for listening, and we hope to see you around.