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This blog is the fourth in a six-part series. Here are the first, second, third, and fifth parts.
Water is essential to continuing to foster a healthy, safe, and productive community and environment. 2022 was a year all about water. We celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, one of the nation’s first and most important bedrock environmental laws. The Clean Water Act aims to remove pollution from American waters and over the course of its 50 years, has had significant successes in working towards that goal. Controlling and managing water pollution is necessary, as water is a critical resource for all living things.
Water impacts nearly every aspect of daily life for human and nonhuman communities around the world. Having polluted water can contribute to a vast array of negative consequences both for immediately impacted groups and for groups more distant from the pollution source. For example, a polluted drinking water source in an environmental justice community not only drives catastrophe in the immediate community, it also negatively impacts the downstream communities who may also rely on the same water source. It negatively impacts the broader social community that suffers the consequences of a resource restricted group, and it hinders the positive socio-economic growth of the country as the polluted community is unable to fully participate in activities outside of meeting this basic need.
The protection of water through the Clean Water Act and through a series of other environmental laws and regulations helps to meet these goals. The wins of the Clean Water Act have been substantial, however, there is still progress to be made. Considerations for environmental justice are a significant oversight that have broad-reaching ramifications in protecting and providing clean water. Historic, systemic, and perpetual racism have contributed to the continued resource extraction and pollution from environments shared by socially and politically marginalized communities. Water in these communities is consistently more polluted and less accessible than in other communities. Devaluing water resources based on their proximity to environmental justice communities is damaging to the community and to the environment. Because the Clean Water Act does not have clear language on what constitutes an environmental justice community, enforcement of Clean Water Act regulations has not always been prioritized in these areas.
Clean water should be a priority for environmental justice communities. These communities are disproportionately dealing with public health crises, face many negative impacts based on cumulative pollution factors, and are overburdened by environmental, economic, and other stressors that are complex to respond to. By overlooking these issues and not prioritizing their immediate remediation, community members and the broader community are restricted to a cycle of environmental injustice.
In 2021, the Biden Administration announced its Justice40 (J40) Initiative, an all-of-government approach to diverting federal resources to addressing environmental injustice. Water—one of the first topics slated to be addressed—is a central part of the Initiative, which has continued growing momentum and focuses on addressing crucial environmental justice projects across the country.
Targeting water infrastructure improvements in environmental justice communities is a promising first step on improving the clean water outcomes for overburdened areas and groups. The failure of critical water infrastructure is not surprising. In August 2022, Jackson, Mississippi suffered immense losses due to the decades of neglected water infrastructure. Jackson is a city with a predominantly (~85%) Black population and has a deep history of structural marginalization and racism. As such, the city and its residents have continuously had to fight for basic rights, including the appropriate application and focused enforcement of the Clean Water Act and improved water infrastructure. The August 2022 catastrophe brought this continued fight for environmental justice to a head, and brought, along with it, increased national attention to the importance of maintaining, improving, and prioritizing clean water and strong water infrastructure—especially in communities facing compounding environmental pollution impacts.
Environmental justice is intrinsically tied to clean water. The Biden Administration has highlighted both as a priority, mandating agencies such as the EPA to take action on improving outcomes across the country. Water is a basic human right and investments in clean water must be made now. Updates to the Waters of the US rule, attention on Sackett vs. EPA in the Supreme Court, and many other actions are occurring which focus on water. Water and environmental justice must remain priorities across administration changes, court cases, and time. The danger posed by issues around water and issues around environmental justice threaten environmental and social safety all over the world and as such, cannot stand!
Continued action to preserve clean water and advance environmental justice is an essential part of protecting a healthy and functional shared environmental future for all. Everyone is deserving of that future.