Perspectives on Water Equity

Read articles, posts, and views from Catalyst staff, Board, and partners about water and water equity in Virginia.

We Must Prioritize Drinking Water Equity in Virginia

Sarah Bedard Holland, CEO of Virginia Health Catalyst
Natalie Pennywell, MPH, CHES, Chair of the Board of Directors

In Virginia, water is enshrined as a human right, yet despite legislation declaring it so, the guarantee of safe, affordable drinking water for everyone in the commonwealth is elusive. As we watch the water crisis in Jackson, Mississippi, unravel, we see in real time what happens when community concerns are not addressed, and investments are not made to support water system infrastructure and operations.

Water is necessary for life. Hard stop. No matter your skin color, zip code, or profession.

Water is also an expensive commodity. It costs a lot of money to support the infrastructure, technology, and workforce necessary to maintain systems that deliver safe, fluoridated water to our tap. And as we see in Jackson and communities across the country (INCLUDING Virginia), people do not have equitable experiences accessing drinking water.

For Virginia to realize its proclamation of clean, drinkable, and affordable water for all, we must be vigilant in supporting our drinking water systems. And just as important, our solutions must be equitable.

Communities of color and those with low wealth are far more likely to experience disruption in their water service, whether in the form of a boil water notice, a water shutoff due to lack of payment, or crumbling infrastructure. This forces people to pay for bottled water which is 200x the cost of tap water, less-regulated, and not fluoridated. This also upends people’s daily lives as they now have to expend unnecessary time, energy, and money on a resource they should be able to rely on.

Individuals should not suffer to this extent due to the absence of adequate state and Federal support.

In Virginia, we can boast that we have a robust Office of Drinking Water with a dedicated, hard-working staff that oversees 2,800 water utilities serving the 7.8 million Virginians who rely on public water. But the strength of our drinking water program does not mean we are immune from issues that ultimately led to community members standing in line for water in Jackson.

There are several steps the state could take now to stay out front:

  • State-supported, mandated water audits of all public utilities to identify burgeoning problems before they reach the point of no return and to prioritize equitable infrastructure investment by the state to our drinking water system writ large.
  • Re-imagined rate setting. Water is expensive, and often rates are set that don’t enable appropriate ongoing operations, much less continuous capital improvements. Rate setting changes are not a solution in a silo, as new rates can’t and won’t address years of neglect. Any new rate-setting paradigm must be informed by community voice, include accessibility programs for residents to ensure affordability, and must also recognize the ongoing need for Federal and state support to ensure infrastructure remains up to date.
  • Increased financial investment in infrastructure improvements to ensure all water systems across the commonwealth have access to funds that enable optimal upgrades.

Drinking water systems are complex and do not function in a silo. Building a sustainable and resilient system in Virginia will require cooperation and investment from the public, private, and philanthropic sectors. Most importantly, this work requires an unapologetic eye for equity and community engagement. At the core, water infrastructure problems are rooted in systemic racism (think red lining, white flight affecting the tax base of a community, inequitable decision making and funding allocations … it is a long list). As such, the recommendations above are just a start but vital to laying a solid foundation of state and Federal support to pave the way to developing sustainable solutions that serve everyone.

Virginia Health Catalyst came to its water work rooted in the belief that everyone in the commonwealth should have equitable access to comprehensive health care that includes oral health. This includes ensuring that Virginia’s public drinking water is fluoridated so everyone can access this inexpensive and effective way to prevent cavities.

But, we began to understand that fewer people were drinking their tap water. So we broadened our efforts to ensure everyone in the commonwealth has access to safe, trusted, affordable, fluoridated drinking water – and that they are drinking it. As a result, the Water Equity Taskforce (WET), an alliance of partners from across the state who want to ensure everyone feels great about their drinking water, was born. WET is developing recommendations that build on those listed above.

For more information about water in Virginia, reference the Encouraging Virginians to Win with Tap Water white paper. While Catalyst staff are working to update this resource, it explores the challenges Virginia faces in promoting water and identifies strategies that can advance this goal.