Driving Equitable Access to Water and Public Lands

December 8, 2020 • KATE JAFFEE

Environmental justice is a foundational tenet of the Aspen Institute’s Energy & Environment Program, guiding its priorities and strategies and underpinning its work. In recent months, the program has redoubled its commitment to centering environmental justice in its existing programming and ensuring that new programming is focused specifically on addressing inequities that exist in the energy, environment, and climate policy spaces.

The environmental justice movement was born out of the realization, acknowledgment, and desire to address the grim reality that the most vulnerable communities in America—primarily low-income and communities of color—carry the greatest burden of negative environmental impacts. Throughout our nation’s history, these communities have disproportionately been the victims of toxic waste dumps, landfills, power plants, and sewage treatment plants, among other environmental harms in their water and air. To move toward achieving justice for these communities, there must be a fair and equitable re-distribution of environmental benefits and burdens. Part of achieving that goal will require us to significantly break from tradition and the status quo and broaden what is at stake and who must be involved.

The environmental justice community has worked to expand the definition and interpretation of what the “environment” means by looking beyond conservation and natural resources, defining the environment as the space “where we live, work, play, learn and pray.” It has also worked to broaden the view of environmental action from the transition of coal to renewables and the cleaning up of toxic waste dumps and mining sites, though these actions are an important part of the overall equation, to broader systemic change. The environment includes the water we drink and the land we live on and environmental justice work aims to guarantee access to these collective resources, and broaden access to the decision-making processes that control those resources. To ensure that the most vulnerable populations do not continue to be disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis, programs like ours must follow the lead of the environmental justice community and with this broad, systemic lens put equity, affordability, and accessibility at the center of its conversations and action.

Achieving our goal will require us to break the status quo and broaden what is at stake and who must be involved.

Our program has recently engaged in this work in several capacities. In 2020 we have convened the annual Aspen-Nicholas Water Forum to explore what constitutes good water governance through the lenses of equity and affordability, in partnership with Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and the US Water Alliance. In the context of drinking water and wastewater services, issues around affordability and accessibility are among the most important. Not a single sector of society remains untouched by the impacts of COVID-19. Water utilities and water customers are no exception with the pandemic further revealing and exacerbating health and financial disparities across income level and racial, gender, and geographic lines. The pandemic has also shed light on and worsened already existing financial challenges for both utilities and customers. Many utilities have faced changes in residential water use, lost commercial customers, and some have placed a moratorium on shut-offs. Meanwhile, many customers are struggling to pay their bills as unemployment rises and yet, water is more important than ever for public health and well-being. In these cases, disproportionate risk around access to safe and affordable drinking water is falling to our most vulnerable communities.

The forum was designed to ground participants in the barriers that exist to achieving equity, affordability, and accessibility in drinking water and wastewater systems and provide space for systems-level thinking around the policy solutions that might mitigate those challenges and inequities. In this effort, one of the sessions explored what the creation of a federal water assistance program might look like. The federal government has a long history of providing subsidies to help offset the costs of things like food, home energy consumption, housing, and healthcare. However, a federal program does not exist to help offset the costs of water. Instead local utilities are left to create and implement their own customer assistance programs which can be expensive and require extensive resources that many utilities don’t have. By convening a cross-section of diverse water industry stakeholders, local, state, and federal policymakers, community activists, and funders around these ideas and challenges, the program can advance equitable and affordable water solutions.

The second key piece of the program’s environmental justice work is aimed at increasing equitable access to public lands and outdoor spaces. Over the course of the summer, in partnership with The Wilderness Society, the program hosted a series of virtual public events and an expert roundtable that led to the publication of the report: Public Lands, We the People: Creating a Healthy and Just Future for All.

Environmental justice work aims to guarantee access to these collective resources and broaden access to the decision-making processes that control those resources.

One of the key takeaways from the roundtable and a guiding principle outlined in the report was that equitable public land access, however those public lands may be defined, will only come from broadening the policy conversations to genuinely include the communities that they impact. This core principle is realized from an acknowledgment of the history and origins of public lands, to understand how exactly certain communities have thus far been excluded. Though the term “public lands” itself should imply that they have been open to all, Black, Indigenous, and people of color have been and continue to be left out of conversations about how public lands should be defined, who they should serve, and how they should be managed. This lack of representation in the policy decision-making process has meant that policies implemented only truly benefit a narrow and privileged group of people. Large communities of people have felt excluded from enjoying the benefits of these lands.

The pandemic has demonstrated just how valuable and restorative spending time outside and in nature can be—not just for our physical health, but also for our mental well-being. Consequently, it is more critical than ever to ensure that all communities have access to our public lands and outdoor spaces so that we all can reap their many benefits. This will only happen by both inviting and creating space for those who have traditionally been excluded from the decision-making table. This series and report represent just a first step for the program into this work, with an exciting new initiative to be launched in 2021.

For too long, decisions that negatively impact communities have been made by those who don’t feel the impacts. The absence of those communities in the decision-making process will continue to result in vulnerable communities shouldering the heaviest burdens of environmental impacts, a reality which has only been exacerbated and further brought to light by the ongoing pandemic. To ensure that climate plans, policies, and actions are truly just, there must first be recognition of past wrong-doing and mistakes. From there, equitable access to decision-making processes should be a priority to make certain that issues around access and affordability are examined and considered when drafting and implementing policy. Our program remains committed to prioritizing this work and supporting the environmental justice community to further drive equitable climate solutions.

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