Water Inequality: How Cities are Making Innovative Strides Towards Water Affordability
May 21, 2019
How do major U.S. cities tackle water affordability? How should we approach disparities regarding clean and affordable water? How are different communities handling stormwater runoff?
Those are some of the issues I had the opportunity to learn about at the conference “Making Ends Meet: A Workshop on Water Affordability” at the University of Pennsylvania on May 30th and 31st, 2018. The conference brought together city officials, community and utility leaders, professors, researchers, urban planners, and concerned citizens from across the country to learn about potential solutions to the nationwide water affordability crisis and how Philadelphia is tackling this issue with green and sustainable methods that benefit both the environment and the city’s inhabitants. As a resident of Philadelphia I was excited to learn how my city is working to address such an important environmental issue. At the conference, I learned that Green City, Clean Waters is Philadelphia’s innovative program that aims to provide better water quality for all of its citizens; keep water affordable for all; ensure environmental, social, and economic benefits for its residents; provide new jobs; and reduce stormwater pollution by 85 percent. Seemingly lofty goals, yet the first five years of the program have been massively successful; over 1,100 green stormwater tools have been added to Philadelphia’s landscape since the program’s inception in 2011 and pollution from stormwater runoff and combined sewer overflow have been reduced by more than 1.5 billion gallons annually1.
The conference kicked off with a session titled “The Philadelphia Story” which was led by Howard Neukrug, executive director of the Water Center at UPenn, and paneled by Debra McCarty, Rob Ballinger, and Sonny Popowsky, who serve as the commissioner of the Philadelphia Water Department, senior attorney at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, and former consumer advocate of Pennsylvania, respectively. The session focused on the city’s groundbreaking Tiered Assistance Program (TAP), which was created in response to the large number of low-income Philadelphia families who were struggling to pay their water bills. The program is an income-based water tariff system, designed to provide assistance through payment programs and reduced rates so that water is more affordable. The session concluded with a speech by former mayor of Philadelphia Michael Nutter, whose office pioneered the innovative Green City, Clean Waters program in 2011. Mayor Nutter focused on the essential nature of clean water to our every day lives and emphasized our responsibility to ensure that future generations have access to this resource as “this work is not only for ourselves, but more importantly for our children.”
The second day of the conference included sessions that laid the framework for explaining the water affordability crisis in more detail and its impact on communities, how various community leaders are addressing this issue, methods for implementing stormwater fees to address runoff, and green infrastructure policies at the federal level. Speakers included Rick Gray, former mayor of Lancaster, Pennsylvania; Emily Kutil, founding member of We the People of Detroit; and Darryl Haddock, Environmental Education Director for West Atlanta Watershed Alliance, among other prominent leaders from across the country. The speakers all shared the challenges and strategies that their respective communities are using to address water issues. Several members of the audience from Detroit shared emotional recounts of how already-struggling families have lost their homes to foreclosure because of unpaid water bills and their attachment as tax leans to homes. This is in addition to the stress and financial burden of buying bottled water for basic living needs, which people from other areas of the country do not experience and have difficulty imagining, as clean water is so easily taken for granted.
The conference was very applicable to the work I completed at my EGA fellowship placement this summer, at the William Penn Foundation in Center City Philadelphia. My work focused on land restoration activities in the Delaware River watershed, including green stormwater infrastructure, and their impact on natural land cover changes. As a member of the audience at these sessions it was inspiring to hear about the strategies that Philadelphia is using to tackle water issues. It was also alarming to learn about the disparities in access to clean water that many are facing in other areas of the country. Additionally, it was humbling to gain a deeper understanding of the water issues in Flint and Detroit, Michigan and how they continue to affect the people who live there. I am hopeful that clean water can be accessible and affordable for all and look forward to a future where this is the reality.
About Amber Carter