Stormwater Management is an Equity Issue
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As extreme weather conditions become the new normal—from floods in Baton Rouge and Venice to wildfires in California, we need to clean and save stormwater for future use while protecting communities from flooding and exposure to contaminated water. Changing how we manage stormwater has the potential to preserve access to water for future generations; prevent unnecessary illnesses, injuries, and damage to communities; and increase investments in green, climate-resilient infrastructure, with a focus on communities where these kinds of investments are most needed.
Too many communities lack the resources to capture and cleanse stormwater. This means that a valuable and, in our fast-changing climate, increasingly scarce resource often ends up wasted. Despite any other water issues a community faces, stormwater matters. In drought-prone regions, stormwater, properly treated and cleansed, can help communities meet their demand for water. In neighborhoods at risk of flooding, failing to capture stormwater can cause extensive damage, and threaten health and safety. Untreated stormwater also poses serious risks to human health and the environment, especially in low-income communities and communities of color that are overburdened with exposure to other sources of pollution.
Stormwater, Health, and Equity
When rain falls in urban areas, it flows over streets, freeways, parking lots, and other potentially polluted surfaces before entering waterways. Along the way, this stormwater picks up trash and heavy metals, harmful bacteria, animal waste, motor oil, pesticides, fertilizers, and other pollutants. Exposure to contaminated stormwater from street runoff, standing water, streams, lakes or beaches can make people sick with gastroenteritis, respiratory illnesses, eye, ear, and skin infections, and other illnesses. Children, the elderly, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems are at greatest risk of becoming ill.
Environmental injustice takes many forms, and stormwater mismanagement in vulnerable communities is on the list. While contaminated stormwater poses risks for everyone, some communities are at greater risk because of past and current discrimination that has led to residential segregation, disinvestment, and lack of political power to shape land-use and stormwater management decisions. In many cities, residents of low-income communities and communities of color have long been excluded from decisions about land use. The result is that these neighborhoods are often paved-over and lacking in green spaces that could absorb stormwater and filter contaminated urban runoff. At the same time, these areas are exposed to dangerous levels of toxins associated with high concentration of polluting business, industries, and transportation corridors such as rail lines, freeways and secondary highways.
When there is no way to capture and divert stormwater, neighborhoods flood. Contaminated stormwater runoff can pollute water supplies, knock out electricity, damage property, expose people to toxins and dangerous bacteria, and interrupt access to transportation, education, and healthcare services. Many communities already struggle with water scarcity because of droughts, an issue that climate change will exacerbate if we don’t act. That means we need to conserve water wisely, including capturing stormwater to meet communities’ overall water needs.
What Can We Do?
There’s no fast and simple solution to stormwater management. In any community, stormwater management raises complex issues. Inadequate financing and fractured governance are a common challenge. Another issue is that efforts to address water issues are often siloed, with environmental organizations focused on stormwater runoff that pollutes the environment, and public health agencies and organizations focused on drinking water inequities from a health perspective.
Another challenge is the lack of data around water challenges and solutions. There’s simply not enough data on water, health, and equity issues. The data deficit is experienced on issues ranging from contamination and compliance, to water safety standards, to public attitudes about drinking water quality and trust (or lack thereof) in water agencies.
But alongside these challenges are opportunities. There are many ways to treat stormwater that will benefit communities, particularly communities that have experienced a lack of investment. For example, green stormwater infrastructure like rain gardens, bioswales, permeable paving, and green streets, can capture and cleanse rain where it falls. These types of infrastructure reduce toxic runoff and improve the safety and supply of our water system while creating healthy, green spaces in neighborhoods that need parks the most. Green spaces offer many benefits, like cooling and cleaning the air, reducing the risk of flooding and extreme heat, and creating opportunities for people to be active and engaged in their communities.
Additionally, green infrastructure creates jobs and workforce programs that can provide living wages in communities that need employment opportunities and can support local economic development. An economic analysis conducted in 2011 found that an investment of $188.4 billion over a five-year period in infrastructure to manage stormwater and preserve water quality in the U.S. would generate $265.6 billion in additional economic activity.
Los Angeles: A Case Study
Los Angeles County, California illustrates the challenges and opportunities stormwater management raises. If given the choice, no one would design the water system Los Angeles County has today. There are 228 different water utilities, and 182 municipal, regional, state, and federal agencies responsible for surface water quality, flood control, and groundwater management. The system now serves a population of over 10 million people, a twenty-fold population increase over the last century, when the water system was first designed.
While weathering ever more extreme cycles of drought and deluge, Los Angeles County faces mounting pressure to capture more stormwater to meet water quality regulatory standards, increase water supply, reduce flood impacts, and address the fractured water treatment and distribution systems. Additionally, many low-income communities and communities of color are without reliable access to clean, safe, and affordable drinking water.
Los Angeles County’s stormwater management system was designed to move water out to the ocean as quickly as possible, but that means wasting water resources and exposing communities to untreated stormwater. Untreated urban runoff is the leading source of pollution affecting Los Angeles area rivers, creeks, and beaches, and research estimates that the County misses the opportunity to capture and treat more than 100 billion gallons of stormwater each year.
That’s where Los Angeles County’s Safe, Clean Water Program and Funding Measure (Measure W) came in. The Safe, Clean Water Program was developed in collaboration with community-based organizations, public health and environmental groups, municipal agencies, organized labor, and other stakeholders. Its goal is to update the county’s water system to capture and treat stormwater; protect water sources and public spaces from contamination; protect public health; invest in communities experiencing the greatest inequities in access to parks, green infrastructure, and safe affordable water; and prepare for ongoing climate change. But to ensure funding for these improvements, county voters would need to approve a 2.5 cent per square foot parcel tax.
To educate the public about Measure W and better understand the needs and priorities of the county’s diverse communities, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works launched an ambitious community outreach program. As part of that effort, our organization, Prevention Institute, collaborated with community organizations that already had trusting relationships with underrepresented communities. We undertook a community engagement process in ten underserved areas of the county. Our community partners educated residents about the Safe Clean Water Program and secured input on their needs and priorities to inform the Measure W revenue spending plan.
In November 2018, Los Angeles County voters passed Measure W, which will generate up to $285 million per year to increase water supplies, improve water quality, and invest in green, resilient, livable communities. It also designates funding specifically for green infrastructure projects in communities that are economically disadvantaged.
To learn more, visit Prevention Institute’s webpage on stormwater and equity.
This article was first published on February 25, 2020 and republished on September 28, 2021.
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