Considering Planned Growth and Development Impacts on Water Resources Through an Equity Lens

Access to clean and safe drinking water, sanitary sewerage systems, and protection and resiliency to water driven hazards like floods are fundamental to the health and economic prosperity of every Maryland community. Communities of color, economically disadvantaged rural communities, and other disempowered communities often suffer the most from inadequate water infrastructure, conveyance systems, extreme weather and climate-driven water changes. The U.S. Water Alliance has identified the following three pillars of water equity that are achieved when all communities:

  • Have access to safe, clean, affordable drinking water and wastewater services;
  • Share in the economic, social, and environmental benefits of water systems; and
  • Are resilient in the face of floods, drought, and other climate risks.

When local jurisdictions are planning new growth and development, consideration should be given in the WRE regarding the water resources and related infrastructure impacts those decisions may have on disadvantaged communities downstream and/or sharing the same water source. This could include asking the following questions:

  • Will the planned growth or development result in any changes or augmentation to drinking water sources that could impact vulnerable populations, such as those with lead service lines or fixtures? Do you have or need inventories of lead service lines or fixtures in communities, schools, or industries, to inform related planning efforts.
  • Is the planned development in or adjacent to sewershed that are experiencing chronic sewage overflows or already under a consent decree for sewage violations?
  • Is the planned development in or adjacent to a watershed where downstream and disadvantaged communities experience chronic or repeat flooding?
  • Is the planned growth or development in or adjacent to a drinking water reservoir watershed, source water protection area, karst geology or area served by shallow drinking water wells, where the potentially impacted water source serves disadvantaged communities?
  • Is the planned development in or adjacent to a historically disadvantaged area with water resource or infrastructure problems?

Where planned growth and development is occurring in the above or similarly disadvantaged areas, care should be taken in the comprehensive plan to avoid, minimize and mitigate water resource and infrastructure impacts that exacerbate or otherwise fail to address continued inequities in the communities of concern. This could include aligning and planning water infrastructure improvement projects in those disadvantaged communities with the proposed new development to leverage related opportunities, public-private partnerships and explore more cost-effective solutions for creating equitable and sustainable communities.

Equity considerations and funding to disadvantaged communities is being prioritized at the federal level through the Justice40 initiative. Local communities that incorporate equity considerations into their planning and capital projects will be best positioned to benefit from these federal resources. The local comprehensive plan can be used as a tool that creates a vision for more equitable and sustainable communities, both in quantity and quality, and helps prioritize water resource protection, infrastructure maintenance, and capital projects in areas that have been historically underserved.

As local practitioners, you know your communities best and where the opportunities are to ensure more equal access to water, sanitation, emergency planning and response services. Since comprehensive planning is a public process it is also an opportunity to engage local communities in equity conversations around planned growth and development. Including a section in your comprehensive plan that addresses equity and affordability will help engage residents in these necessary and important conversations. It will encourage and empower your various local communities to participate in that larger visioning process. We have the opportunity to plan to meet the future with the full range of best practices and to begin to fully realize people's effect on others as we continue to address people’s effect on the environment. Some tools and resources to help screen planned growth and development relative to communities of concern are provided below.

Links to Resources:

  1. U.S. Water Alliance's Equitable Water Future
  2. Prevention Institute
  3. Maryland Environmental Justice screen
  4. Drinking source water protection areas for both surface and groundwater sources can be found within MDE Water Supply Program’s Source Water Assessments
  5. UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation

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