Pursuing Water Equity for Underserved Communities

Is it an uneven playing field?

Photo Courtesy of Francisco Benitez

Pursuing water equity is a moral project.  Addressing water equity is often absent from conversations about the sustainability of our water resources. It is unfortunate not all of the important issues facing water challenges revolve around water quality.  There is broad consensus that equity refers to just and fair inclusion–a condition in which everyone has the opportunity to participate and prosper.

“Equity occurs when all communities have access to safe, clean, affordable drinking water and wastewater services. Furthermore, equity ocures when communities are resilient in the face of floods, drought, and other climate risks; must have a role in decision-making processes related to water management in their communities; and share in the economic, social, and environmental benefits of water systems” (US Water Alliance). Consequently, inequities happen when water-stressed vulnerable communities are ignored and don’t have clean, affordable and reliable water supply to depend on.

Water equity has three pillars: (1) ensure that all people have access to clean, safe, and affordable water services; (2) maximize the community and economic benefits of water infrastructure investment; and (3) foster community resilience in the face of climate change (US Water Alliance). Water equity shapes economic growth, social well-being, and a healthy environment.  Most importantly, water equity must have an outward and forward-looking future that values an adequate and fair water supply that has a shared common purpose. Looking at water management from this angle, it takes on a more balanced equitable approach. 

Water Inequities Are Happening

Water inequities are happening today all over the world including the United States. Here in southwest inequities are exacerbated because of climate change. There are many reasons for inequities: socially and economically disadvantaged communities are not invited to the table to make decisions; water-stressed struggling farmers do not have access to capital and federal bailouts; marginalized communities lack infrastructure to protect them from flash flooding and lack of planning for impacted communities; and lack of partnering to build climate resilience and failure of Federal, State, Local and public utilities to dedicate climate mitigation funding to disadvantaged communities.

It is unfortunate that economically and socially distressed communities are often affected by flooding, storm surges, storm damage, inadequate water and infrastructure. Advancing more equitable water policies and water planning practices would help alleviate some of these impacts. 

No doubt, here in the southwest communities are currently grappling with the spread of COVID-19 and drought at the same time. Governments are reminded why water used for proper hand-washing should be a human right and should not be treated as a pricey commodity. Private companies are no exception. To’hajiilee community had a water crisis due to the failure of five of their six groundwater wells. The community needed a new pipeline constructed. Western Albuquerque Land Holding infringed To’hajiilee’s access to water by stalling a 7.3 mile water transmission pipeline. It caused a water equity calamity that obstructed the To’hajiilee community from meeting their needs for adequate clean drinking water and their tribal sovereignty (Pueblo Action Alliance). 

To avoid inequities such as To’hajiilee, having Tribes, Pueblos, Nations, acequia communities and communities of color involved in planning and the policy-making process at the beginning is important. It shouldn’t be an after thought.  By having their involvement, it would play a significant role in identifying the inequities and steps needed to address and advance climate change adaptation strategies.

Gabe Vasquez, a Las Cruces City Councilor speaks up about equity issues in southern New Mexico’s practice of growing pecan trees for export. Councilor Vasquez says, “pecans have marginal benefits to the community and take extraordinary amount of water that could be used for community use, growing a local food economy and jeopardizing long-term water supplies”. Data shows, pecan exports for New Mexico have risen slowly and steadily since 1996 and now stand at $201 million a year, according to a  Crossroads Resource Center study. New Mexico pecans, account for 37% of the national crop and ranked the 3rd top product sold by New Mexico farms (USDA Economic Research Service). The big question. Are the benefits worth the cost of taking precious water resources for years to come to grow and export pecans to only benefit a few farmers? As water shortages worsen the need to adapt will be the key.

Pecan orchards are a water using crop. Draining aquifers to extension and depletion of scarce surface water availability will most likely happen without taking conservation measures.  An important on-farm drought adaptation mechanism to help both farmer economically while addressing our water supply comes by converting from surface irrigation to water conserving irrigation technologies such as drip irrigation (Ward, F. Journal of Hydrology). It would serve the best interest of the public for public subsidies to help farmers with the conversion (Ward, F. Journal of Hydrology). To delay these measures would be certain to cause water inequities. 

Water Inequity Overlooked in New Mexico

What will it take to address water inequity? It will take state and local capacity building to pinpoint community burdens, analyze the effects and act on mitigating the causes. In other words, examine the outcomes before they happen to improve inequities. By taking a proactive approach, communities of color and economically distressed areas would benefit from a number of strategies. For example, including a vulnerability analysis used as a tool to pinpoint the burdens before they happen.

Simply pointing out inequities isn’t going to solve the problems. If water agencies and legislators paid attention to the uneven playing field it could be a start. 

As New Mexico grapples with its dire water future it can look the other away or it can actively plan a robust way forward with equity in the forefront. If decision makers work toward making equitable decisions the likelihood is that they will work toward the common good.  Isn’t that what rural, urban, pueblos and tribal communities want and deserve to meet their needs–a level playing field? 

Efforts Are Moving Forward

With water equity in mind, smart and meaningful efforts to address water supply in the face of climate change are beginning to unfold. Now underway are the 50-year water plan and the Rio Grande Basin Study. Equity is mentioned broadly in New Mexico’s 50-year water plan, as one of the three criteria besides sustainability and stewardship. Moreover, much can be done to achieve multiple positive direct outcomes without changing statutory laws. Striving toward more equitable outcomes depends on collaborative, mutually beneficial relationships among a wide range of stakeholders and affected communities.

12 steps could pave the way for New Mexico to pivot toward a common-sense way forward–one that recognizes the value of water as a common shared resource.

  • The Governor’s 50-year water planning process must recognize water equity and include vulnerable communities’ needs. Prioritize front line communities- those that have been harmed by environmental injustice and who are likely to be hurt first and worst by the impacts of climate change.  
  • Water management agencies, universities, and public and private utilities must pioneer equitable and inclusive smart water approaches to water management in vulnerable communities.  
  • Use of capital projects to foster neighborhood revitalization in areas most vulnerable to climate impacts is an opportunity to create jobs that support economic vitality and upward mobility. 
  • Use state and federal resources to help community-based organizations build local capacity to engage in water planning, training and policy making.
  • Non-profits and philanthropic organizations need to bring equitable water strategies into their investment portfolios. Policy makers must consider Social Impact Bonds as acceptable when contemplating infrastructure investments. 
  • Rural communities, unincorporated areas surrounding cities, and tribal and public lands lack water and wastewater infrastructure. Invest in aging and inadequate water infrastructure as an urgent need without affecting the local ratepayer base. 
  • Identify discriminatory policy decisions that failed to provide extended infrastructure to low-income communities and communities of color. Prioritize the attempts (or means) to correct them. 
  • Increase public participation and participatory planning in creating green water infrastructure projects that strengthen and stabilize communities. 
  • Dedicate adaptation, mitigation, and disaster relief Federal funding to vulnerable communities and fund community development initiatives to build climate resilience. 
  • As government agencies develop resilience plans and make water management decisions, outreach and decision making should, “at all times”, seriously consider concerns of Tribes, pueblos, acequia communities, and identified vulnerable communities. 
  • Expanding water sharing agreements. For example, the repartimiento tradition still in use by acequia communities is an equitable, sustainable way of approaching water management. 
  • Craft, advance, and advocate for policies that promote equitable water management. Use equitable water management practices to promote job creation, workforce development, climate mitigation, resiliency, and improve health outcomes and food security. 

Bringing equity into the forefront of policymaking would force a look at sustainable solutions to help solve the inequities that affect mostly underserved communities.  As New Mexico water managers face water shortages inequities are certain to happen. The choice is to look the other way, or New Mexico can actively plan a robust way forward with equity in the forefront of water management decisions. 

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