Assessing environmental justice impacts and social learning in Integrated Regional Water Management Planning
Throughout California, the lack of safe and affordable water is an every day reality in many disadvantaged communities. Given that water quality problems are often concentrated in small, rural locations that lack the resources needed to solve their drinking water problems, California policy makers have acknowledged the need to address challenges on a regional basis. Here, the idea of Integrated Regional Water Management (IRWM) holds much promise. But, until recently, IRWM venues have been inaccessible to disadvantaged communities. To remedy these problems, the California Department of Water Resources funded seven pilot projects to develop models for improving participation and addressing the water needs of these communities. This study assessed how well these IRWM planning efforts address the needs of disadvantaged communities in California.
Assistant Professor, Department of Human Ecology
UC Presidential Postdoctoral Research Fellow, UC Davis
Research collaborators* and advisory team:
- Mark Lubell*, Professor, UC Davis Environmental Science and Policy
- Karl Longley, Regional Water Quality Control Board Member (Central Valley) and Professor Emeritus, CSU Fresno
- Maria Herrera and Laurel Firestone, Community Water Center
- Colin Bailey, Environmental Justice Coalition for Water
- Holly Alpert, Inyo-Mono IRWM Region
- Tim Carson, Santa Cruz IRWM Region
- Patti Reyes, Coachella Valley IRWM Region
- Mike Antos, Greater Los Angeles County IRWM Region
- Melissa Sparks, Department of Water Resources
An array of drinking water-related problems exists in the U.S, despite a history of investment in sophisticated water infrastructure and the existence of federal laws such as the Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water acts that regulate source contamination and protect public health. In fact, throughout California, the provision of unsafe, unreliable and unaffordable water is an every day reality in many disadvantaged communities. These problems create both health and economic burdens for some of the state’s most vulnerable populations, including Latino farm-working communities, and the rural poor. Given that many water quality problems are concentrated in small, rural systems that lack adequate resources to solve their drinking water problems, California policy makers have increasingly acknowledged the need to address drinking water challenges on a regional basis, rather than develop community-by-community fixes. Here, the field of Integrated Regional Water Management (IRWM) holds much promise as its premise is to address water management holistically and regionally, involving a diverse set of water stakeholders. But, until recently, IRWM venues have been inaccessible to disadvantaged communities, given the highly technical environments, and their general political disenfranchisement in IRWM.
Addressing water issues in disadvantaged communities requires understanding their water needs and the technical, economic, and political barriers to addressing these needs. From an environmental justice perspective, disadvantaged communities must be active and informed stakeholders in IRWM. Acknowledging this, the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) has increasingly mandated that IRWM efforts assess how to increase disadvantaged communities participation in regional water planning. Even after multiple efforts on this front, however, participation of disadvantaged communities in regional IRWM plans has generally remained minimal and disadvantaged communities continue to face challenges in accessing funding for regional solutions.
To remedy these problems, in 2011 DWR funded seven pilot projects to develop models for improving participation and addressing the water needs of disadvantaged communities and environmental justice communities (low-income and/or communities of color). Our project assessed how well these IRWM planning efforts address the needs of disadvantaged communities in California through an assessment of DWR’s seven pilot projects. We operationalized environmental justice as an analysis of the structural factors that result in the disproportionate distribution of environmental hazards on the most vulnerable communities, as well as the systematic exclusion of these populations from shaping policies, plans, and actions to prevent or mitigate these hazards.
We examined this topic through the practical application of a social learning framework, which provides an explicit mechanism for linking core concepts of procedural justice (representation and involvement in environmental decision-making) with core IRWM concepts of social learning. In particular, by focusing on the role of social learning—that learning which occurs within and across diverse stakeholder groups—we explored the extent to which traditionally marginalized groups are, or are not incorporated into present-day water governance regimes.
Photo by Community Water Center.