In the quest to secure a sustainable water future for the U.S., Radhika Fox believes too many people have been left out, for too long.
“We know it is low-income people and communities of color that are most impacted by a lack of safe, reliable and affordable access to water,” says Radhika, CEO of the U.S. Water Alliance. “So in every decision we make about water, we need to include their voice and wisdom and experience."
At the U.S. Water Alliance, Radhika and her colleagues are working to create a more equitable and inclusive water management system in jurisdictions across the country. I spoke to Radhika about why diversity in decision-making is critical to America’s water security.
How do you ensure that our shared water future is diverse, inclusive and equitable?
Part of the reason there are suboptimal outcomes in the water sector is because we historically haven’t had the right people at the table. If you look at our big challenges with water – whether its COVID-19 recovery, or drought, climate change, water scarcity and flooding, we need more diverse and inclusive decision-making tables. That’s how we get better, more durable solutions. We focus on water equity and have defined what that means to our organization. It’s about making sure every community has safe, reliable and affordable access to water and that all communities benefit from the jobs and economic vitality generated through water-sector investments. Equity and inclusion are at the forefront of our climate change efforts because water is one of the ways climate is most dramatically expressed.
Why have communities of color and low-income communities been left out of decisions about water?
A lot of institutions that manage water are very bureaucratic and technical. While the professionalization of water is really good, it has led to certain communities being excluded. We are seeing across the nation right now, following the murder of George Floyd, that systemic racism is embedded in all kinds of institutions, like education, transportation and criminal justice. Water is no different. There are two million people in this country who lack access to centralized water infrastructure like flushing toilets and taps in their home. We need to understand the disproportionate impact on different communities as we design ways to include everyone in decision making.
Where are you seeing progress?
There is a lot of great, collaborative work in Colorado River basin to ensure a safe, secure water supply for everyone, including the environment. There’s deep consensus-building involving water utilities, Native American tribes, environmentalists, farmers, and ranchers. It’s an effort to get everyone to think about the ‘whole’ rather than just their own individual stake in the Colorado River’s water. We need that kind of intersectional thinking.
When you invest in building trust and understanding ... it leads to better solutions.
At the U.S. Water Alliance, we’ve created a Water Equity Task Force with seven urban centers – Atlanta, Buffalo, Camden, N.J., Cleveland, Milwaukee, Louisville and Pittsburgh – that includes water utilities and frontline community organizations. We’ve been helping people build the shared understanding of who is being left behind and what solutions can be advanced together. When you invest in building trust and understanding between folks who haven’t historically worked together, it leads to better solutions.
As the impacts of climate change increase, we are facing more floods and droughts, worsening water-quality and degraded river health. How does your organization approach these problems?
Climate is one of the biggest compounding crises we face. Over 90% of climate stress is experienced through the water cycle. Our approach to water management and climate resilience is called One Water. It calls for basin-wide, watershed-scale thinking. We connect climate to other issues that people care about, like the fact that poor children in Camden have to walk through raw sewage in order to get to school when it rains. It’s a public health issue. It’s a justice issue. We connect climate to the lived experiences of peoples’ lives. This watershed approach is one that the Walton Family Foundation Environment program has used, and it can be remarkably effective at securing sustainable solutions.
What makes you optimistic about our water future?
While we face tremendous water challenges, our capacity for innovation is so much bigger. I see that happening across the Colorado River basin, for example, in the ways that the Gila River Indian Community brought new and unexpected solutions to the Drought Contingency Plan. That was made possible because people collaborated and listened to each other. That kind of inclusive process is happening in other places, like Catfish Creek in Iowa, or the Yahara River watershed in Wisconsin. Folks who have historically been in opposition are coming together. That makes me optimistic. But I do feel a sense of urgency. The scale of the successes and interventions we are seeing don’t yet match the scale of the problem. We need to accelerate the stories of hope and progress so they become the everyday standard around the country.
Hear more from Radhika Fox about her work with the U.S. Water Alliance at this Politico Live event on America's Environmental Future: The Water Solution, held June 15, 2020.