American Rivers believes that all people should have access to clean water and a healthy river. Rivers are a critical component of our clean water infrastructure, and we can’t have healthy rivers without healthy communities.

American Rivers’ new Just Water initiative seeks to ensure that underrepresented communities have a voice in decision making around critical water infrastructure and management decisions that disproportionately affect low income communities and communities of color, such as flooding, combined sewer spills, inadequate water infrastructure and lack of affordable water.  

Just Water builds on our current local work with underrepresented communities and connects the work within a national framework to leverage broader, national impact.  Our plan is to do this through the creation of a large, networked community of frontline community groups focusing on equitable, natural water management. We seek to combine new networking technologies along with traditional community engagement tools to increase the ability of local organizations to connect and learn from each other, access training materials and opportunities, find new sources of funding. The end result of this integrated network is to help community organizations build the influence they need to effectively change local and national water management policies that will improve the health of their communities and their rivers.  

The Challenge

Cities, towns and neighborhoods – are the places we live, work and call home. However, this built environment has a massive impact on rivers – outdated pipe infrastructure creates sewer overflows and rainwater that falls on streets and roofs flows off in sheets rather than soaking into the soil, transporting pollution to rivers and streams and flooding low-lying communities. Often low-income communities and communities of color are located in flood -prone areas, or adjacent to sewer overflows.

While these neighborhoods clearly need investment in resilient water infrastructure, these are also the communities least able to pay increases in water bills meant to upgrade the water infrastructure. And while these communities have routinely been left out of the conversations about how water is managed– in many cities they are a powerful constituency for both their communities and clean water.

Water management is also a very local issue, but one that can’t be solved without state and federal assistance. It is challenging for local organizations to have the capacity to work at the critical state and federal levels, while national organizations need to better engage and understand the needs of local communities.

Background

American Rivers conserves clean water for people and nature. American Rivers’ Clean Water Supply program contributes to this part of the organizational mission by advocating for equitable, integrated, natural infrastructure as a critical part of urban water management in cities and towns.  This includes integrating city, state and federal decision making around water management systems to increase efficiencies and clean water outcomes. Equitable, integrated, natural infrastructure can result in less water use and reduced pollution discharged into rivers and streams. These solutions must be pursued and implemented in an equitable manner, with the goal of ensuring marginalized communities secure the needed resources to address their water challenges.

The Clean Water Supply program has four goals we believe are necessary for the increased use of natural infrastructure and equitable, integrated urban water management.

  1. All cities and towns prioritize the use of equitable, natural, and integrated infrastructure in their water management strategies.
  2. The appropriate federal, state and local policies are in place to incentivize and support equitable, natural and integrated water management.
  3. Funding mechanisms are in place to support the equitable, natural and integrated, water management.
  4. Marginalized communities have adequate support and resources to secure these improvements in their communities.

Current projects

At American Rivers, we believe all people should have access to healthy rivers and clean water.  Through American Rivers’ Just Water initiative, we seek to address critical water equity issues facing communities across the country.

American Rivers works with marginalized communities that have historically been left out of water-related decision-making and community redevelopment. We listen to and learn from each other in order to identify and develop strategies to address water infrastructure problems important to the community. We also engage water utility and government entities in the process to collaboratively identify opportunities to implement effective water infrastructure solutions.

American Rivers’ Just Water work is:

  • collaborating to provide water advocacy training to enable community members to advocate for water justice to help ensure healthy communities, clean water and healthy rivers; 
  • convening community-based groups, water managers and government leaders to share their expert place-based and technical knowledge through peer exchanges that develop understanding and a basis for working together;
  • providing technical expertise to support community decision-making and recommendations regarding clean water issues; and
  • lifting up and amplifying community voices.

Currently, American Rivers’ Just Water initiative includes working with communities to develop local capacity for addressing urgent stormwater and flooding issues, identifying gaps in information and funding related to safe and affordable drinking water, and advocating for equitable distribution of water-related infrastructure investments.  Examples of this work are included below.

Technical Assistance to Support Community Water Leadership

In Atlanta, the historically black neighborhoods surrounding Turner Field have endured decades of infrastructure-driven injustices. Projects such as interstate highways and stadiums have transformed a once-thriving neighborhood into a vast sea of parking lots and roads, displacing residents, small businesses and jobs, and causing major flooding in residential neighborhoods immediately downstream. American Rivers is working with communities around Turner Field in the wake of the Braves’ exodus to ensure the redevelopment is aligned with the community-sourced vision and priorities for green stormwater infrastructure and inclusive development. Our work started with listening to members of the Turner Field Community Benefits Coalition, and then joining the community planning process known as the Livable Centers Initiative which included engaging with a broad range of stakeholders and then developing two feasibility assessments for green stormwater infrastructure implementation that were ultimately incorporated into the Livable Centers Initiative final plan. Our work continues convene stakeholders to develop and implement a plan to finally address the persistent flooding in the watershed.

Advocate Training to Support Engagement in Water Decision-Making 

American Rivers partnered with ECO-Action to develop the Atlanta Watershed Learning Network, a monthly watershed advocacy course for community members which involved lectures and discussion led by expert speakers on subjects ranging from infrastructure and environmental justice to advocacy and community organizing. The second phase of this watershed advocacy training sought to create dialogue and peer exchange between Intrenchment Creek and Proctor Creek watersheds—two urban communities that are facing similar challenges related to flooding, pollution, development, sports stadiums, the rising cost of living, and environmental justice. The current cohort consists of residents from the Upper Flint River near the Atlanta Airport as well as Proctor and Intrenchment Creeks. As development in Atlanta marches forward, it will be crucial to have many advocates standing strong for their neighborhoods.

Water Affordability & Infrastructure Challenges in Shrinking Cities

Many post-industrial shrinking cities in the Great Lakes are dealing with significant water challenges. From water shut-offs, ‘do not drink’ advisories, and lead contamination, cities like Detroit, Toledo, Gary, Milwaukee and Flint are grappling with how to pay for the necessary infrastructure to provide clean drinking water while keeping rates affordable for the customer. In response to these challenges, American Rivers is working to ensure access to safe, clean water through addressing affordability at both the water system and user scales.  American Rivers is engaging with community groups who have been working on-the-ground and as residents for many years to learn about their water-related challenges and determine together how best American Rivers can support their efforts to address water justice in their communities.  We’re taking part in community meetings focused on specific water-related issues, participating in regional forums to learn more about affordability, infrastructure and lead issues, and sponsoring community leaders to participate to provide an opportunity to learn from other communities and share their own stories as well.

American Rivers is also providing grants to support local groups and their water equity work. For example, we are supporting Toledo’s Junction Neighborhood Coalition that has just recently finished a neighborhood greening plan which includes green stormwater infrastructure, help to facilitate and coordinate a similar planning process for a neighborhood in Flint, MI.Lastly, with input from our local partners, American Rivers is developinga drinking water policy report that will span several Great Lakes states and will identify barriers and opportunities to advancing water affordability. This report as well as our community relationships will influence and guide our work over the next five years to change state and local policies on water infrastructure and affordability.

Equitable Green Infrastructure

Green Infrastructure in the form of parks, green spaces, trees, bioswales, and rain gardens provides many important functions and benefits such as clean air, clean water, and cooler temperatures, particularly in an urban environment. However, investing in green infrastructure improvements in an urban community, in particular those that have long lacked infrastructure investment, can result in the unintended consequence of rising rents, increased taxes and the displacement of long-time residents who can no longer afford to live there.   American Rivers has provided support to the Partnership for Southern Equity to help kick off an emerging cross-sector coalition, the Just Growth Circle, and to produce an Equity in Green Infrastructure Resource Guide which documents examples of innovations around equity in green stormwater infrastructure and anti-displacement strategies that will help lay additional foundation for the work of the group.  To date the effort has already produced a powerful Values Statement that is being incorporated into the City of Atlanta’s Green Infrastructure Strategic Action Plan.

Community Storytelling to Restore an Urban River

The Walnut Creek watershed is heavily impacted by urbanization and for decades suffered from untreated sewage discharges by the City of Raleigh.  The Creek has historically been considered a liability by residents for many reasons, including its high levels of contamination, severe flooding during heavy rain, and significant accumulations of trash, contaminants, and other pollution from urban stormwater discharge in Walnut Creek. In 2009, the City of Raleigh developed the Walnut Creek Wetland Center to provide education, recreation, and economic benefits to the community and the greater Raleigh area. Nearby neighborhoods consist of residents who are 61% people of color with a poverty rate of 58.5%. American Rivers is engaging with residents in the community working with their tradition of storytelling to craft the story of how the creek has impacted their community and how they are taking action to restore the creek while resolving the flooding and water quality issues for a healthier community and healthier creek.

Clean Water Investments in the Places with the Most Need

American Rivers began working in Pennsylvania to help address failing, aged water infrastructure harming cities’ resilience and ability to thrive. American Rivers advocates for a ‘green first’ approach to investments to ensure affordable and sustainable solutions that produce multiple benefits for communities. We worked in Lancaster to put a value on all the benefits green infrastructure could deliver to the city and bolster support for the city’s investment. To advance the understanding of green infrastructure’s value, we compared neighborhoods in Harrisburg and determined that equitable investment will reap communities most in need the most value from green infrastructure’s benefits.

Our green stormwater infrastructure projects help demonstrate the value of clean water investment to marginalized communities, provide a foundation for broad implementation of small-scale green stormwater infrastructure projects and help ensure low income communities of color connect with decision-makers responsible for clean water management. Projects have included:

  • Rain barrel installations for low income residents. Residents and municipal leaders of underserved municipalities on the outskirts of Philadelphia had the opportunity to learn how small improvements could lead to cleaner water.
  • Design to retrofit impervious sidewalk, parking spaces and roadway at a prominent gateway to one of Harrisburg’s low income communities. This design will set the tone for ‘greening’ a multi-block renovation of the Harrisburg neighborhood, manage polluted stormwater and help beautify the community. Planning and design for the project served as a catalyst for bringing together local citizen groups, economic development agencies, the water authority, city staff, utility managers and state transportation department, all of whom are now coordinating around the plans for maintenance and revitalization in the neighborhood.

Clean Water for All

Communities in the United States are being threatened by sewage overflows, flooding, polluted stormwater, leaky pipes, and at-risk water supplies. These threats are a result of our nation’s outdated water infrastructure and water management strategies, and their impacts fall disproportionately on low-wealth neighborhoods and communities of color that are already suffering from a lack of investment and opportunity. To solve this problem, we do not just need more investment in water infrastructure, we need a new kind of water infrastructure and management, and we need it in the right places. The solution is the equitable investment in and implementation of water infrastructure.

American Rivers is one of the leaders of the national Clean Water for All Campaign, a coalition of conservation, hunters and anglers, equity, business, labor, and medical associations, that is working to achieve advancements in and protection of clean water.  The campaign is currently in the process of establishing guiding principles with equity as a theme running throughout and will include policy recommendations such as increasing overall funding for clean water infrastructure while at the same time advocating for that funding to go to places that have the greatest need.