Op-Ed: Clean Water Is the Path to Healthier, More Equitable Communities

Investing in natural-water infrastructure makes sense for economic health, racial and social equity, and environmental sustainability. Just look at the Delaware River

Our country is in the midst of a devastating public health crisis combined with a critical, and long overdue, conversation about racial justice. Working for real equity must be at the forefront of how we respond to both crises, and many leaders have observed how intertwined they are. One unexpected connection that interweaves the threads among health, racial equity, and the clean water that sustains us: the Delaware River.

The Delaware is the lifeblood of our region, providing drinking water, swimming, paddling and green space for millions of people in South Jersey, metro Philly, and beyond. It also needs protection to keep doing all of this, which is why our friends at American Rivers named the Delaware the River of the Year for 2020. And now, more than ever, our communities are in need of clean water, good jobs, and healthy rivers.

The connection goes like this: let’s up our game to coordinate federal, state and local spending on the kind of natural-water infrastructure that creates good long-term jobs, while netting us cleaner water, more green space, and long-term climate resilience. Let’s do this first and most in the coastal and riverfront low income and communities of color that are the most impacted by racial injustice, a changing climate, and threats to drinking water quality. In this time of increased focus on equity in all aspects of American life, we must focus on water equity, as well. A person’s zip code should not determine whether they have safe drinking water, sewage in their basement when it rains, or clean waterways.

Natural-water infrastructure like rain gardens, innovative wastewater treatment, and green stormwater management projects can directly address these challenges. It can help prevent the overflowing combined sewer systems that threaten our homes, our health, our rivers, and our drinking water. As rains get heavier with a hotter climate, these threats need more, rather than less, investment. Natural water infrastructure absorbs rain, reduces flooding, prevents sewer overflows and provides parks and green space all at the same time. Done well, natural infrastructure can also boost economic growth by beautifying neighborhoods and properties, and drawing residents and tourists to the riverfront.

Community impact in Hoboken and Camden

Both of us have seen first-hand the community benefits of natural-water infrastructure, Lee in my statewide work, and Andy as a former wastewater utility leader from Camden and current leader of a national program to scale these approaches.

In Hoboken, for example, climate-resilient parks absorb polluted stormwater, prevent sewer overflow events, and manage the heavier rains we are getting as the climate changes, preventing floods. Federal Emergency Management Agency dollars combined with local water pollution-prevention money is making this possible, and the approach can and should be scaled elsewhere.

In Camden, the PowerCorps green jobs program, modeled on a similar program in Philadelphia, recruits and trains young people to build and maintain green stormwater infrastructure projects throughout Camden City. PowerCorps provides good jobs, job training, educational support and leadership development, all while bolstering clean- water infrastructure. It’s a triple win for Camden City.

Local water utilities, partnerships

Local water utilities are key to these programs and investments, as they have the expertise, community connections and regulatory charge to scale investment. Water utilities across the region are stepping up, becoming clean-water champions and beneficial community anchors with jobs pipelines, a commitment to exceeding their regulatory targets, and a determination to better water quality beyond their own pipes. Local utilities can also take the lead on replacing the lead service lines that make drinking water unsafe in many communities.

Community partnerships are the other key — no one can do this work alone. Community, youth, and environmental nonprofits can partner with government and business players to create programs that are more than the sum of their parts. The Camden Collaborative Initiative has done just this, acquiring playground equipment for the new green spaces created by natural infrastructure installations, among other things.

But none of this good work gets done without funding. That means increased federal funding streams to keep water affordable, even in the current recession. It should also include mechanisms that require big property owners that contribute the majority of polluted runoff — such as strip malls, universities and storage centers, and other tax-exempt properties — to pay their fair share. With minimal impacts on homeowners, towns can create a sustainable revenue source that is dedicated to the green- infrastructure investments that are needed to protect and clean up our water supply. Combined with state funding and federal stimulus dollars, we can see a healthy, affordable, sustainable water future.

Investing in natural-water infrastructure makes sense for every community’s triple bottom line of economic health, racial and social equity, and environmental sustainability. We can do so much more together than separately, and that’s more true now than ever.