Equitable Adaptation Legal & Policy Toolkit

Resilient Water


A man carries two empty, large, blue water barrels with stacks of the same type of barrels behind him.
Rainwater harvesting workshop for Spanish-speaking community members in Tucson, Arizona. (Source: Sonora Environmental Research Institute, Inc.)

Climate change already is affecting water resources across America and data suggests the change will continue and may accelerate. Frontline communities with increased exposure to environmental pollution are more likely to confront issues related to water quality, for example, exposure to contaminated water through lead poisoning or increased stormwater and flooding affecting the quantity of water. As a result, climate-change-related weather events threaten to aggravate and worsen those existing risks to water quantity and quality.

Climate-change related temperature increases have already impacted the intensity, quantity, and quality of water across the country. Since 1900, as temperatures around the country have increased, the amount of precipitation has also increased, but not equally in all places. Precipitation has increased mainly in the Northeast, Midwest, and the Great Plains. Many parts of the country have less precipitation than a century ago, including many areas in the West (the Southwest in particular) and the Southeast.

Meanwhile, precipitation intensity, that is, the amount of precipitation falling during extreme events, has risen, particularly in the eastern half of the country.See footnote 1 Higher temperatures increase evaporation (and demand for water by vegetation, called transpiration), which increases the potential for drought. Climate change will also affect water quality. Higher temperatures change water chemistry reducing dissolved oxygen levels, and more intense precipitation increases runoff of pollutants in lakes and rivers, all of which can degrade water quality. By heating the atmosphere and changing precipitation patterns and sea levels, climate change already is exacerbating many risks to water resources. These risks can be summarized as:

  • Too much flooding, i.e., flooding;
  • Too little water, i.e., drought; and
  • Degraded water quality

The risks of flooding, drought, and poor water quality (along with sea-level rise threatening water supplies and quality in coastal areas) will almost certainly become more frequent and intense as the climate continues to change.See footnote 2 

Climate change worsens water resource risks that are often disproportionately borne by frontline communities. Frontline populations tend to disproportionately live in areas that have the greatest risk of flooding; they face the greatest financial hurdles obtaining water during shortages or even when supplies are abundant; and they can be most exposed to poor water quality. For example:

  • Frontline communities tend to have higher exposure to flood risks.See footnote 3 
  • Water is relatively expensive for low-income households. These households can have difficulty paying bills and can have their supplies cut off because of failure to make payments.See footnote 4 One in eight Americans currently lives in water poverty.See footnote 5 
  • Urban areas with shrinking populations (e.g., in the Rust Belt) face rising costs for water and deteriorating infrastructure to supply and treat water.See footnote 6 
  • Some 10 million homes have water supplied through lead pipes, with many of these in relatively poor urban areas in the Northeast and Midwest.See footnote 7 A particularly acute example of a frontline community exposed to water quality problems is Flint, Michigan,See footnote 8 which is discussed more in-depth in this paper.
  • Many rural communities have high poverty rates and low tax revenues and thus face challenges in securing safe water supplies and water treatment services.
  • Native American lands also tend to have relatively high poverty rates and have relatively less access to safe and reliable water supplies as well as water treatment.See footnote 9 
  • Municipalities now pay the majority of water infrastructure costs.See footnote 10 As a result, wealthier municipalities are more likely to make larger investments in water resource infrastructure while frontline communities, with fewer financial resources, tend to have aging infrastructure that is more vulnerable to climate events. These disparities leave frontline communities susceptible to degrading infrastructure, reduced water quality, inadequate water treatment, and flood risks.

America’s water infrastructure across the nation, and not just in frontline communities, (along with other public infrastructure) is in very poor shape, with the American Society of Civil Engineers giving the state of the nation’s drinking water infrastructure a D and its water treatment infrastructure a D+.See footnote 11 

Goals for Resilient Water

The goal of equitable water resilience is to reduce the vulnerability to climate change risks in a manner that addresses how marginalized communities may be disproportionately affected by such risks. This chapter discusses how equity and resilience issues are being reduced by addressing:

  • Cross-cutting water and equity issues — Water resource and equity issues should be addressed in a comprehensive manner. As noted above, poverty, racism, and lack of access to government decisionmaking processes have led to frontline communities lacking safe, reliable, and affordable water supplies. Given the cross-cutting challenges of addressing water resource and equity issues, policymakers are more likely to achieve equitable outcomes by taking a comprehensive approach to water resource management. For example, by ensuring that frontline communities fully participate in decisionmaking processes, water resource policies are more likely to reflect their needs and concerns. In addition, the use of appropriate data and metrics to provide quantitative data to identify areas inhabited by frontline communities that face high water resource risks should help policymakers give those areas sufficient attention to water policymaking. A coordinated and comprehensive approach to these risks can improve the likelihood the policy objectives will yield equitable outcomes. 
  • FloodingFrontline communities already bear disproportionate risks of flooding and these risks will most likely increase with climate change. Flood risks can be reduced through: prevention, which includes building flood walls and implementing more nature-friendly approaches such as green infrastructure; accommodation, which involves having structures in flood areas be above flood levels; or avoidance, which moves people and structures out of flood-prone areas to safer locations.
  • Drought (too little or too expensive water) — As climate impacts become more prevalent, water supplies are projected to decrease in some areas or during particular times of the year such as in the summer, placing additional burdens on frontline communities with existing challenges to water access. Low-income communities often have water bills that are unaffordable and live in areas where governments are unable to make investments that reduce water demand or use water more Subsidized investments in water efficiency, technologies that support water reuse, and other programs that help lower-income communities pay for water service and limit cutoffs of water service can help reduce the acute climate-related risks and inequities in water access.
  • Water quality (water unsuitable for drinking and other uses and inadequate wastewater treatment) — Urban frontline communities often have poor water quality caused by aging infrastructure (e.g., old distribution pipes) that can harm human health.  Many rural communities have inadequate water treatment systems. In both cases, a lack of adequate financial resources to improve municipal water supply contributes to inequitable quality of water resources.  Local, state, and federal programs can address these inequities by paying for or subsidizing the replacement of old water systems or installing ones where none exist now or investing in water treatment in homes.


Water management is almost as old as civilization. Some of the oldest settlements, such as Jericho, built some 10 centuries ago, were located near springs. Indoor water supply and toilets began to appear some five centuries ago. It was not until the 19th century that sanitation and extensive indoor plumbing began to be installed in major urban areas. Wastewater treatment became prevalent in the 20th century.See footnote 12 However, what is also as old as civilization is the presence of poor and marginalized people. These people have always faced relatively less access to reliable, safe, and affordable water.

While there have been fluctuations in climate over the lifetime of civilization (and certainly before that), climate was always thought to be relatively stable. Water supplies and location of settlements were based on assumptions that while water supplies and flooding might vary, these conditions were considered stable over time. Climate change has altered that assumption. We are certain the climate is changing and know with a high degree of certainty that humanity is causing recent changes in climate.See footnote 13

Comprehensive and equitable policies to address worsening water resources attributed to climate change should also address the challenges of the inequitable availability of a safe, reliable, and affordable water supply, and flood protection.

Key Players

The key actors in making decisions that affect water resilience and equity include:

  • Federal Government Through statutes such as the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act the federal government sets standards for surface and drinking water quality across the country. Applying and enforcing these standards equally ensures that all surface and drinking water systems meet minimum standards for human and ecosystem health. The federal government also provides funding for water systems, some of which is aimed at low income or disadvantaged communities. Some of the funding sources are described in Section IV.
  •  State governments. Many state governments lead the implementation of federal water quality laws, including the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act and in distributing some sources of federal funding to municipalities. States may also impose additional requirements on top of the federal floor, although this is not typically done.See footnote 14  California often goes beyond federal standards on environmental protection. For example, AB 65 in California Water Code Section 106.3 states “every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking, and sanitary purposes.”See footnote 15 
    • States can also provide funding for water resource projects. This is discussed in greater depth in Section IV.
    • Many states authorize wholesale regional providers of water. Examples of such regional entities created by state law include the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, Denver Water in Colorado, Tampa Bay Water in Florida, and the Metropolitan Water District in southern California. These wholesale water providers sell water to municipalities.
  • Municipal governments. Municipalities are typically the primary governmental provider of clean drinking water, wastewater treatment services, and water for other indoor purposes. Water supply and treatment are often provided through publicly owned and operated municipal utilities or in some cases through privately owned and operated utilities. Water utilities bill water users for the provision of services and can cut off users if bills are not paid. Counties, cities, and towns also tend to control zoning which includes flood plain management.
  • Private sector actors. The private sector can provide services such as the construction of water distribution and treatment systems and installation of water systems within homes and buildings. The private sector can also provide financing for water investments. As noted above, private firms run some water utilities.
  • Nonprofit organizations. Nonprofit organizations can help water advocates and provide technical support for reliable, affordable, and clean water, along with protection from flooding.

Policy Options and Tools

The following policy considerations demonstrate how water management systems can address resilience and equity considering the risks posed by climate change.



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