Pierce on Water Safety Issues in Los Angeles

Gregory Pierce, director of the Human Right to Water Solutions Lab within the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, was interviewed by People Places Planet Podcast about access to drinking water in Los Angeles County. Compared to energy and gas, utilities providing drinking water are much more fragmented because some systems are public while others are private. “A lot of the issues that are being faced particularly in East and Southeast Los Angeles are rounds of chemical and emerging contaminants, and a lot of them have been under the regulatory radar,” Pierce said. “A lot of the issues are classified legally as ‘secondary’ but really affect what’s coming out of people’s taps. And people don’t trust the water because it’s discolored, tastes bad, smells bad, and a lot of the issues there are actually coming from the plumbing inside buildings where landlords are technically responsible, not water systems.”


New Roadmap for 1st Comprehensive Assessment of U.S. Drinking Water Quality UCLA Luskin researchers and Rural Community Assistance Partnership Incorporated plan to implement the recommendations over five years

By Mara Elana Burstein

Today, the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation and Rural Community Assistance Partnership Incorporated released a comprehensive roadmap for what the first national assessment of drinking water quality compliance can and should look like in the next decade.

The nation’s roughly 50,000 regulated community water systems face aging infrastructure and underinvestment that cause challenges in providing safe drinking water — but no one has assessed the full extent of the problem. Current national data on water quality can be underreported, inconsistent and difficult to extract for analysis.

The new report outlines how to identify the specific problems systems face, the solutions and which communities should receive priority investments. The four phases of a full compliance assessment are detailed in the report as follows:

  1. Develop a transparent, accessible and consistent set of national drinking water quality data to help agencies identify which water systems are regularly out of compliance.
  2. Evaluate feasible solutions and select the best options.
  3. Estimate the upfront and ongoing costs.
  4. Improve access to no-cost technical assistance to help disadvantaged communities receive funding.

Despite the availability of new government funding, these steps will be challenging to achieve, as each one is complicated and multifaceted.

“Our recommendations, while layered and complex, are feasible to incorporate over the next decade with a continued commitment to and funding for community water systems across the country,” said Gregory Pierce, co-director of the Luskin Center for Innovation.

This report builds on the first comprehensive analysis from the Luskin Center for Innovation on what is needed to provide safe drinking water throughout California. It identifies where water systems are out of compliance, proposes solutions and estimates how much it would cost to implement those solutions.

“The work to advance the human right to water is too important to limit to just one state. Countless communities do not have access to safe, affordable drinking water. We need a nationwide assessment,” said Pierce, who also directs the Human Right to Water Solutions Lab at UCLA.

States and the federal government are making unprecedented investments in water infrastructure and environmental justice, particularly after the passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law in 2021. Now there is a historic opportunity to make water infrastructure improvements and work toward ensuring safe drinking water for all.

View the full report, made possible by financial support from the Water Foundation

Learn more about the latest water research by the Human Right to Water Solutions Lab


Pierce Breaks Down the Importance of Wastewater Recycling

Gregory Pierce, co-director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, was interviewed on a Wall Street Journal podcast about how wastewater recycling can help Californians with limited access to drinking water. Sometimes referred to as “toilet to tap,” the method has an image problem, but reintroducing treated wastewater back into the system could help ensure that 19 million people in Southern California have access to clean and safe water. “A lot of water everywhere is recycled water, so the fact that it’s coming more directly from wastewater doesn’t bother me, but I get it at the same time that it takes some learning and that people are hesitant,” Pierce said. California does not currently have rules about the addition of treated wastewater directly into drinking water systems, but the State Water Resources Control Board is expected to take up the matter in the fall.


After Years of Study, Parking Reform Gaining Ground

A Wall Street Journal piece on the growing number of U.S. cities rethinking the amount of space set aside for parking cited several UCLA Luskin experts. The article highlighted research by Michael Manville, associate professor of urban planning, that found that a 1999 ordinance exempting builders from adding new parking spots in downtown Los Angeles allowed them to add more residential units at a lower cost. Another study by Gregory Pierce, now co-director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, and C.J. Gabbe, currently a visiting scholar at the center, found that costs associated with parking mandates are often passed on to consumers through higher rents or retail prices, even as many of the spots go unused. Donald Shoup, the urban planning scholar who pioneered the field of parking research, summed up the efforts to reform parking policies: “The Dutch have reclaimed land from the sea, and I think we can reclaim land from parking.”


Pierce on Growing Threats to Clean Water

Gregory Pierce, director of the Human Right to Water Solutions Lab at the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, spoke to media outlets across the country about vulnerable infrastructure threatening access to clean water. A CalMatters article on questionable state oversight of mobile home parks in California cited Pierce’s research showing a high level of dirty drinking water, particularly at parks that run their own water systems. “I can tell you, especially from talking to people who are supposed to be overseeing and trying to fix issues where people don’t have clean water in the state, mobile home park-run water systems stand out,” he said. Pierce also spoke with WHYY in Philadelphia about the impact of climate change, including drought and sea level rise, on water safety. “I think every utility is going to have to make adaptations to climate impacts,” he said. “Precipitation patterns … are changing, and they’re changing even faster than we expected.”


Pierce on Long-Term Impact of State’s Wet Winter

As California’s wet winter continues, Gregory Pierce, co-director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, has helped news outlets make sense of the long-term impact on the state’s water woes. Pierce told the Los Angeles Times that, while water conservation measures should continue indefinitely, some of the most extreme restrictions could be lifted. “We bought ourselves some more time so we don’t need to be in that hyper-emergency, but we’re always in a drought,” he said. Pierce, director of the center’s Human Right to Water Solutions Lab, also appeared on the podcast Water Talk to share information about green infrastructure, wastewater equity and the intersection of two of the state’s most pressing needs: clean water and adequate housing. “The biggest issue in the water-housing nexus is how can we build more affordable housing supply in California, which we absolutely need, but do it in places that have enough water and also don’t have too much fire,” he said.


Pierce on Climate Change, Drought and L.A.’s Epic Storm

London’s Guardian newspaper carried news of blizzard conditions that sparked wonder and delight among Southern Californians unaccustomed to winter weather — along with vast power outages, closed highways and other hazards. Greg Pierce, co-director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, put the extreme weather event in context, noting that more research is required to determine the role of the climate crisis in setting the stage for the storm. California’s wet winter has created a robust snowpack and higher reservoir levels that will relieve some drought pressures, but “we can’t let up,” Pierce said. “This storm is helping us stay ahead of pace — way ahead of pace than in recent years — but I still think we really need to see more,” he said. “We were in a really extreme place and this [storm] just gets us back to buying a little more time as we make other major investments and continue to harden conservation.”


Pierce on Solutions to Mitigate Floods in San Francisco

Gregory Pierce, co-director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, spoke to SFGATE about San Francisco’s lack of preparation to prevent flooding after supercharged storms. The city’s sewage infrastructure is extremely antiquated, combining raw sewage and stormwater runoff into a single system. San Francisco’s vast concrete landscape also enables flooding as it doesn’t allow for any stormwater to absorb into the cityscape. Creating a landscape that allows for such drainage will help reduce the chances of flooding. “Reducing paved area is the biggest factor we need to take into account that we haven’t historically,” Pierce said. In addition, about 4,400 of the city’s 25,000 catch basins have been “adopted,” but they are not regularly cleaned by volunteers. “It’s great if neighborhoods and local communities can take additional ownership of unclogging issues,” Pierce said. But he stressed the importance of having centralized maintenance of the system in order to keep the basins clean.


Pierce on End to Water, Power Shutoffs for Low-Income Angelenos

A Los Angeles Times story on the decision by local utility officials to halt shutoffs of water and power for low-income customers who can’t pay their bills cited Gregory Pierce, co-director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation. The story cited research from the center showing that Los Angeles’ communities of color were disproportionately affected by utility debt and shutoffs during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Protection from utility shutoffs for those enrolled in low-income discount programs will help lessen the debt burden for [L.A. Department of Water and Power’s] most vulnerable customers,” said Pierce, who leads UCLA’s Human Right to Water Solutions Lab. Pierce comments frequently on issues of water access and equity, including in a USA Today fact-checking article on false claims that water scarcity is an illusion. Climate change has created weather extremes, he said, but excess water in one place doesn’t help another place that’s parched by drought.

Pierce on Misconceptions About Prop. 30

Gregory Pierce, co-director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, spoke to Vice about Proposition 30, the measure to fight climate change by taxing the rich, which was defeated at the polls. The California initiative, which would have added a 1.75% tax to income over $2 million to fund the transition to electric vehicles and fight wildfires, was opposed by a coalition that called Prop. 30 a scheme by the ride-hailing company Lyft to secure a huge taxpayer subsidy. Pierce said that characterization was inaccurate. “There’s nothing about Lyft drivers or Lyft, or anything in particular benefiting them except that Lyft drivers have vehicles like other folks who might benefit from a lot more money for EVs,” he said. Pierce noted, however, that the measure’s lack of clarity on how revenues would be spent was a legitimate concern. The need to reduce emissions is urgent, but money spent on the wrong programs would not help the crisis.