A thirst for water equity: Local experts express concerns about accessibility to affordable water

According to the U.S. Water Alliance, most people in the United States have access to safe, reliable, affordable water, and available wastewater services, all day, every day.

However, there are still millions of people who continue to lack access to clean water. Some areas of the country never had adequate water and wastewater infrastructure, while others struggle with aging systems, unaffordable rates, and poor water quality.

The U.S. Water Alliance also says there are cities and towns that lack access to clean lakes, rivers, and beaches that provide free, healthy public spaces and leisure activities.

Vulnerable communities without other recreational options are particularly affected when water bodies and coastlines are threatened.

The Alliance predicts that creating an equitable water future means providing all people with access to clean, safe water at affordable rates. To achieve this access, it is critical to implement collaboration and co-investment from all levels of government, water providers, the private sector, and community-based organizations.

Taking this issue of water health and equity into consideration, Cleveland Global Shapers, an international network of young people driving dialogue, action, and change, via Zoom convened a panel of local thought leaders to discuss water health, equity, and access in our region.

Water health. equity, and affordability

Elizabeth 'Liz' Barlik, JD, Communications & Public Affairs Manager at Cleveland WaterElizabeth 'Liz' Barlik, JD, Communications & Public Affairs Manager at Cleveland Water“We are all so lucky to have Lake Erie,” says Elizabeth ‘Liz’ Barlik, JD, communications & public affairs manager at Cleveland Water—the city-owned drinking water utility. The organization provides water to Cuyahoga County and three additional counties—approximately 1.4 million households. Cleveland Water is the largest drinking water utility in Ohio and the 10th largest drinking water provider in the United States.

“We care a lot about water and Lake Erie, where we pull water from to treat it for drinking,” says Barlik. “We have a big system to supply all those people and infrastructure to maintain. We don’t have to worry about water conservation like the Western states.”

However, Cleveland Water does have to be mindful of algal blooms in the western basin of Lake Erie and the recent emergence of hypoxia in the central basin, Barlik says.

“We have to be concerned about our source of water, because if that’s not safe and secure, it makes our job that much harder,” she says, “which in turn means there’s no safe water available to people.”

So, what’s the biggest water issue Clevelanders face?

Robin Williams, Water and Sewer Program Manager at CHN Housing PartnersRobin Williams, Water and Sewer Program Manager at CHN Housing PartnersRobin Williams, water and sewer program manager at CHN Housing Partners, says equity means equal access to safe and clean water—a basic human need for everyone and everyone has the right to have it.

“Everyone in Cleveland has access,” she says. “The problem we face is affordability and access to the same quality.”

Access to the same quality of water is a result of aged water lines, Williams says.

To address this issue of affordability, CHN Housing Partners signs people up for the programs they administer for Cleveland Water and the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD). CHN’s Water Affordability program provides a 40% discount rate on water and sewer bills while the NEORSD Sewer Crisis program offers a one-time payment of up to $300 on sewer bills for persons who are in a crisis situation.

There are some eligibility requirements for both programs.

Water Champions

Pauletta Hubbard, Manager of Customer Service at NEORSDPauletta Hubbard, Manager of Customer Service at NEORSDAccording to Pauletta Hubbard, manager of customer service at NEORSD, the utility that chemically treats wastewater and tries to prevent stormwater runoff issues within 63 communities, the organization is constantly trying to find new, innovative, cost-effective ways to chemically treat wastewater out in the public.

“We are also working hand and hand with other agencies to make sure the rates are equitable as well as we’re advocating for lower rates,” says Hubbard.

NEORSD teams also go out in the community, hosting utility assistance resource fairs with all the utilities to help people figure out a way to pay their bill. “If they pay their [bills] this will increase the impact on the infrastructure and we’re able to do more projects,” says Hubbard.

At the same time, CHN Housing Partners deploys “water champions” into the community.

“They are meeting people where they are,” says Williams.

Water champions—NEORSD employees who go out into the community to help residents navigate and answer questions about water and sewer bills. The champions can follow up, and follow through, to get those answers to residents

Joseph Meissner, Volunteer, Utilities For All, and Attorney, Legal Counsel for Citizens CoalitionJoseph Meissner, Volunteer, Utilities For All, and Attorney, Legal Counsel for Citizens CoalitionAttorney Joseph Patrick Meissner, volunteer with Utilities For All and legal counsel for the Citizens Coalition, has been involved in utilities since 1966.

Meissner represents individual customers and groups who try to change utility companies so they are more beneficial, accommodating, and accountable to customers. During the height of COVID-19 pandemic, Meissner says he felt strongly that there should not be any disconnection in central services. He’s also represented people who appeared before the water board.

“Our group is open for individuals who need to know their rights and people who need someone to help them out,” he says. “People can go before the board if they don’t agree with their bill.”

Future of water health and equity

When asked what the future of water health and equity could look like in our region—especially with climate change—and how they envision the future of water health in a way that’s realistic but also hopeful, the panelists spoke about the need to provide better access in one way or another.

Barlik contends that equity and affordability isn’t just assistance programs.

“Assistance programs are super important, especially in communities like Cleveland where a large percentage of the population is low income and at the poverty level,” she explains. “But that’s like the end of the line.”

She says she believes affordability and equity is a strategy.

If you don’t have water, then you’re going to buy bottled water and that’s significantly more expensive than tap waterIf you don’t have water, then you’re going to buy bottled water and that’s significantly more expensive than tap water“It’s in everything that we do and the number one thing [is] delivering safe water to every home,” Barlik continues. “Because, if you don’t have water, then you’re going to buy bottled water and that’s significantly more expensive than tap water. Tap water costs a penny a gallon. A bottle of water is two bucks at the corner store.”

Barlik says the first step to make sure everyone has safe water is that it must be reliably delivered. “We have 5,300 lines of water main that we have to maintain and our only avenue to do that right now is user rates, the bills customers pay.”

Therefore, she recommends that citizens advocate for federal infrastructure dollars to help reduce the burden on customers as well as looking at assistance programs and how they can help. “It’s a long term, working strategy,” she says.

“A lot of it is about making sure we are thinking about and addressing potential impacts in terms of environmental health and environmental justice,” says Max Herzog, program manager at Cleveland Water Alliance, a non-profit economic development group based in Northeast Ohio but working across the Lake Erie region.

One of the things the staff looks to do at Cleveland Water Alliance, in partnership with Cleveland Water, is piloting new technologies that can help more quickly, easily, and inexpensively identify where there is risk for lead line connections.

“There’s not a whole lot of lead in the city’s system but there are a lot of old pipes in our houses and connecting lines from our houses to the public system,” Herzog explains. “And it really is a tremendous cost for individual homeowners or the city itself to look at assessing and replacing all of those lines.”

He reiterated the importance of investment at the state and federal level. One of the biggest challenges that our utilities face, he says, is that they are dependent on rate payers to solve these problems unless there’s money coming from other sources.

“It’s really important that we as a country and we as a society are really prioritizing investments in water infrastructure the same way we have historically prioritized investments in the electric grid and cultivation of fossil fuels,” says Herzog.

“These are things that have seen tremendous support at the state and federal level while our drinking water and wastewater systems have been left to individual communities to fund themselves.”

Setting an example

Meissner says he hopes that conservation, environmentalism, and the other great qualities the utilities are trying to serve will make more water available to people. “Of course, this is a global problem as well,” he says. “[And], there are other places that would love to have the water we have.”

Meissner explains, “We actually are about 4% of the population in the world, in the United States, but we have 7% of the freshwater. A lot of that is due to the Great Lakes here. So, I’m hoping we can come up with ideas, [but] my hope is that each individual understands you have a water mission.”

He mentions that each person uses 82 gallons of water a day—wasting a lot of water. He stressed that citizens can and should be better water stewards.

“It could be as simple as in the morning, when you’re shaving, for men, don’t waste the water by having to keep running while you’re lathering up,” he says. “And, for ladies, I would look at showers…. My goal is to help each individual understand our duty.”

Max Herzog, Program Manager at Cleveland Water AllianceMax Herzog, Program Manager at Cleveland Water AllianceHerzog and Hubbard also chimed in to provide insight on what can be done at the individual level to improve water health and equity.

“Lake Erie is the most impacted of all the Great Lakes by human activity,” says Herzog. “And, we’ve seen with our neighbors to the west, in Toledo and communities in that area, the tremendous impacts of harmful algal blooms could have on not just recreational waters and the economy but direct health impact if not treatment.”

Herzog goes on to say knowing that we’re more prepared now than in the 2014 Toledo crisis, but the real issue is dramatically increased water treatment cost.

“That, again, will have to fall on rate payers in the current model,” he says. “Making sure that we’re doing our part as the Lake Erie community to address these challenges so that harmful algal blooms don’t become a yearly problem for us here in Cleveland the way they are in Toledo is really critical.”

Hubbard says becoming more knowledgeable and engaging with local agencies that promote health and equity throughout the region is a simple act individuals can take. She suggests subscribing to newsletters and getting involved within localities to educate people on ways to serve. She also recommends advocating for the less fortunate, in terms of rates, so they have the ability to pay these water and sewer bills.

“Just becoming more educated so you are aware because there are a lot of things out there,” Hubbard says.

Barlik adds, “Recycling helps in so many ways. When you don’t recycle and don’t recycle right… The waste side of it… Plastics end up in our environment and in the water ways. The majority of the trash collected along Lake Erie beach clean ups is plastics and it doesn’t go away. It breaks down. It gets smaller and now we’re really looking at microplastics in drinking water….”

She says microplastics are everywhere. “There’s no place on Earth, Antarctica included, where they haven’t found microplastics. And, what’s the health impacts?”

Barlik also suggests planting native plants helps prevent erosion. “All that stuff is good on multiple levels.”

Up next: The Future of Waste. The next conversation in the series will be next week.

This is the fifth story in a 10-part series designed to highlight how an intergenerational model is helpful in moving the needle in so many aspects of Cleveland as well as to uplift narratives of resilience and impact within the environmental justice space. Upcoming stories will spotlight different organizations working on environmental justice and climate change as well as capture the intergenerational voices working on these issues.

Rhonda Crowder
Rhonda Crowder

About the Author: Rhonda Crowder

Rhonda Crowder worked as a general assignment reporter for the Call and Post Newspaper for 11 years and has served as associate publisher of "Who's Who in Black Cleveland" since 2013. She currently runs a creative services agency, is VP of print for the Greater Cleveland Association of Black Journalists, and coordinates Hough Reads literacy initiative. Her debut novel is titled "Riddles."