Water equity—a new term?

We love and cherish water here in Minnesota, and we’re proud of our “Land of 10,000 Lakes” and headwaters of the Mighty Mississippi heritage. The presence and quality of our lakes and rivers and abundant drinking water (mostly from our groundwater systems) is easy to take for granted. It seems like we Minnesotans are water rich, but is Minnesota a water-rich state for everyone who lives here?

When we think of the stories we tell to describe our water richness, many Minnesotans are left out of the discussion. Many among us have never had the access to shorelines, and owning or renting a cabin on a lake “up north” has never been a part of their experience. For others, the cost of having safe, reliable water services exceeds their monthly grocery bill. These realities begin to form the backdrop of the term “water equity.”

a fire hydrant, backhoe, construction worker, tree, people recreating, water
The pillars of water equity
Photo credit: US Water Alliance

Conversations and focus on water equity have been increasingly important among astute observers of water policy, climate change, and social and racial justice. Historically, we have treated water as a commodity available for purchase—whether that be shoreline of a lake or river, safe drinking water and treated wastewater services, and protection from flooding. (Of course, Indigenous people do not value water as a commodity, and treat water as a living relative—that’s another story altogether.)

Climate change and water equity

Minnesota communities and their residents face a very uncertain future when it comes to climate change and safe, affordable water services. The impacts of climate change (increased flooding frequency, for example) fall unevenly and disproportionately on low-income communities and Black, Indigenous, and people of color across Minnesota. Water utility bills in smaller non-metro area communities across the state exceed $150 per month. For low-income residents of the metro area, water service bills make up a disproportionate share of their monthly budget, and water shutoffs for lack of payment create a health crisis for that household. These are water inequities.

Water infrastructure across Minnesota is in disrepair, but the rate of the system failures, boil-water orders and the like is growing fastest in smaller, rural communities. The estimated need to meet current requirements for safe and clean water is $11 billion statewide. These estimates do not factor in climate change impacts that will force communities to spend more to be resilient to more extreme flooding.

How to make water equity a reality

As society is facing up to racial equity, we also need to face up to the water equity challenges. I am a fan of the US Water Alliance’s discussion of water equity found in their An Equitable Water Future National Briefing Paper. It describes the national challenge and the opportunities to build stronger communities and a more equitable America building on three pillars of action:

  1. Ensure all people have access to clean, safe, affordable water service
  2. Maximize the community and economic benefits of water infrastructure investment
  3. Foster community resilience in the face of a changing climate

Water equity refers to a just and equitable system of water benefits for all people, including having communities that are resilient in the face of climate changes. At Freshwater, we are committed to a water future that is more systemically equitable for everyone. That’s why our board incorporated working for water equity into our updated strategic plan. Investing in water equity will work toward a future when everyone can be water rich.