When it comes to water access, the devil is in the details
Greg Pierce is the Associate Director of the Luskin Center for Innovation at UCLA and serves as a Senior Researcher, leading the Water, Environmental Equity, and Transportation programs.
Your research is centered on basic service provision, with a focus on water and transportation. Can you tell us a little more about your work?
I started out over a decade ago focusing broadly on basic service access in urban areas in low and middle-income countries. I'm a social scientist through and through, and I got into water and transportation somewhat by coincidence. Because I was concentrating on what individuals, households, and communities need in terms of basic services, water was a natural fit. As I've gone on in my career, I've seen that you can't look at things like water, other utilities, or transportation as single issues – a household that is dealing with water access is also likely to have a transportation access challenge.
My current research supports policies to advance California's legislative Human Right to Water, which defines high quality, affordable, and accessible water as a right. Those three tenets are pretty universal and my work, particularly with the State Water Resources Control Board (the Board), is focused on understanding deficits in those areas. I'm looking at efforts by local, regional, and state actors to address those deficits, as well as what households and communities do when those efforts are inevitably insufficient. In that vein, I've been working with the Board to develop a statewide drinking water affordability plan. We delivered a report to the state legislature in February, but implementation has been on pause because of COVID. I've also been working with the Board to support their work identifying where water systems and private wells fail to meet water quality standards, and coming up with solutions to inform the spending of the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund authorized by Senate Bill 200.
Overall, water affordability is a big topic, and it's new enough that it doesn't have an entrenched definition. There are no state or federal support programs, and drinking water systems are super fragmented. That's true nationally and in California, where we have 3,000 community water systems. They all have different ways of setting rates, which allows for local control but leads to people paying vastly different amounts for the same quantity of water. Our research found a statewide approach that pools resources to offer more equal levels of affordability assistance makes a lot of sense.
You do policy-relevant research with a variety of organizations. What kinds of advice might you offer to researchers interested in doing the same?
There are many ways to inform policy and I certainly respect all of them. You can do “pure science” and if done well, it can by itself impact policy, but I think that's rare unless you work on communicating your results in a clear way. I've mostly been approaching it by working with agencies, sometimes under contract and sometimes independently. I also work with communities and organizations to provide information they can act on to influence policy. That's where I find an inherent tension between standard academic research and the stylized sense of going through a policy process. It's one thing to do a piece of research, and another thing to see a policy implemented, and yet another to see it be meaningful to the people that it impacts.
I say that, however, as someone privileged to be working in California where it's relatively easy to do policy-informed research related to environmental justice. Ultimately, I think what's clear is you can't just write a paper and send it to people and expect them to pay attention, you have to show up to their meetings and get to know them.
What do you see as some of the California water issues on the horizon?
In addition to the access issues I've talked about, small water system consolidation comes to mind. While most everyone is on board at this point, there are still many institutional and governance obstacles that end up in the weeds of local politics and history. Another more unique topic I've been working on is related to trust in urban water systems. There are communities in LA and the Bay Area where disadvantaged, minority-majority communities don't trust their water, yet the water quality isn't technically violating any regulatory standards. The mistrust is exacerbated by issues related to affordability, as well as broader disenfranchisement of people in low-income neighborhoods. We've identified the problems, now we're trying to work on solutions, but it's really not on the radar for most people.
The other issue I would raise is how to handle the fact that the cost of water must increase as we wean ourselves off imported, climate-insensitive water supplies. We have infrastructure to maintain and have to recognize there is no new low-cost water source coming. Therefore, we have to move toward more resilient local and regional supplies, which cost more than current supplies. I'm concerned that if we aren't proactive, we are going to wind up with a series of regressive, fixed charges on people's water bills to offset the absolutely necessary increased costs we're facing to make our local and regional supplies resilient.
What do you find most interesting when it comes to water-related research?
California as a state is relatively young. Our water infrastructure history is intricate and to do water policy well and address the underlying problems, you've got to know that history. I find arcane administrative and governance history fascinating. The way that some conversations, particularly around local water reliance, are looping back to discussions that predate settler colonial practices is necessary. At this point, we have to look back, recognize our mistakes, and think about how to adapt. Since the drought, I have seen an increase in public awareness around moving away from water imports, as well as on the Human Right to Water, so I see some room for optimism. The other thing is thing is I'm just a water nerd, so it's all pretty interesting.