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.



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