Equitable Adaptation Legal & Policy Toolkit


Cross-cutting Water and Equity Issues

A father and daughter wash their hands in a kitchen sink.
(Source: Seattle Public Utilities)

The goals for public and private entities managing water resources are to provide the public with a safe, clean, and reliable supply of water and protection from hazards such as flooding. These services should be provided equitably to all communities regardless of income, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, geography, and other factors. While the United States has no stated policy on water equity, the United Nations has 17 sustainable development goals. Goal number six includes “universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all” and “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.”See footnote 1 The UN calls for meeting these goals for all people around the world by 2030.See footnote 2 

Several American cities have a stated policy on water equity. For example, Seattle Public Utilities describes its goals as “providing high-quality utility services and protecting public health and the environment for our customers…. it is designed to provide predictable rates while ensuring long-term sustainability and excellent service….”See footnote 3 New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection describes its goals as “To enrich the environment and protect public health for all New Yorkers by providing high-quality drinking water, managing wastewater and stormwater….”See footnote 4 (emphasis added).

Many policymakers are addressing issues of equitable access and resilience for frontline communities by investing in programs that reduce multiple risks from climate change to water resources. These crosscutting programs include efforts to achieve the following objectives:

  • Identify marginalized communities that face relatively high climate change risks to provide adequate, reliable, and safe water supplies and flood protection.
  • Ensure access to and involvement by frontline communities in municipal and other decisionmaking processes concerning water resources that affect these communities. This includes engagement with or development of community-based organizations that represent and advocate for the interests of frontline communities.
  • Develop and implement climate-resilient policies that:
    • Involve frontline communities in decisionmaking; and
    • Address vulnerability of frontline communities to climate risks.

Considerations of Cross-Cutting Water Equity Programs


  • By helping to ensure safe and reliable water supplies and protection from flooding, crosscutting programs can improve economic development potential in frontline communities.


  • Poor water quality and flooding degrades the environment in frontline communities and poses risks to human health.

Social /Equity

  • People with lower incomes and people of color tend to face higher risks of unaffordable water, poor water quality, and flooding.
  • The ability of frontline communities to participate in water policy processes is often limited and needs to be improved.
  • Addressing these issues can help give frontline communities a better opportunity to fully participate in and contribute to society.


  • Existing mechanisms for public input need to ensure that frontline communities have complete access to and can fully participate in water policy processes.
  • New institutions and mechanisms may need to be developed to create avenues for access by frontline communities to decisionmaking processes.
  • All water resource management decisions need to consider climate change impacts and adaptation.


  • Federal, state, and municipal law can require access to governance processes for frontline communities.

Lessons Learned

  •  It is critical that frontline communities are fully and actively engaged in decisionmaking on water resources. It is also critical that governments have a comprehensive and permanent commitment to equity in water resource management. This means that all water resource management decisions must be viewed through the lens of equity.
  • As with equity, all water resource management decisions need to be viewed through the lens of climate change. The decisions should not just consider water resource management under current or historic climate but also consider how climate change may affect future water resources.


Related Resources

Seattle Public Utilities - Utility Discount Program

In recent years, Seattle Public Utilities (SPU), which is the city’s water utility and provides drinking water and wastewater treatment, has strongly emphasized community engagement and equity issues through the creation of a variety of organizations and programs. One organization, Connect Capital, which is comprised of SPU staff and members of a community foundation and a community organization, advises SPU on how to ensure that the benefits of future  investments are equitable and address climate threats to those at risk of displacement. One result of Connect Capital’s encouragement is SPU’s investment in infrastructure in frontline communities, such as the South Park Neighborhood. Another equitable initiative under SPU is the Utility Discount Program, under which seniors, persons with disabilities, and low-income customers receive a reduction in their water and electricity bills. Households with incomes at or below 70% of state median income pay only 50% of their SPU bill. Further still, SPU’s Environmental Justice and Service Equity Division aims to promote inclusive community engagement and collaboration.

Cleveland, Ohio Climate Action Plan - 2018 Update

The Cleveland Climate Action Plan (CAP) addresses the need to build climate change resilience while prioritizing social and racial equity and the development of “green jobs.” The CAP was developed through twelve workshops held throughout the city, and the majority (54%) of the 300 attendees were people of color. A 90-member Climate Action Advisory Committee (CAAC) that includes members from a number of environmental and community-based organizations supports CAP. A subset of the CAAC developed a Racial Equity Tool that was used to review each action item under consideration for the plan. The CAP aims to reduce flooding, increase water supply, and improve water quality by promoting green spaces that reduce runoff and combined sewer overflows (CSOs). This plan has resulted in improved water efficiency and the amount of wastewater overflow in the city decreasing from 5 billion gallons per day (Bgal/d) in 2011 to 4.1 Bgal/d in 2015.

Community-driven Water Solutions in California's Central Valley - Community Water Center

Formed in 2006, the Community Water Center (CWC) is an organization in California’s Central Valley that works to combat water insecurity among low-income communities. Many residents of the Central Valley are from low-income Latinx communities that deal with water scarcity, groundwater contamination, or a lack of proper infrastructure. CWC provides technical and legal assistance for frontline communities, training residents as clean water advocates and helping to secure funding for sustainable drinking water projects. Through the education and empowerment of community members, CWC works to not just provide short-term aid to communities but also support long-term structures.

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