A Grist article highlighted the findings of a UCLA Luskin report about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on utility debt, particularly in communities of color. Scholars from the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation and Center for Neighborhood Knowledge co-authored the report, including CNK Director Paul Ong, LCI Associate Director Greg Pierce, senior researcher Silvia González and graduate research fellow Ariana Hernandez. The paper, “Keeping the Lights and Water On: COVID-19 and Utility Debt in Los Angeles’ Communities of Color,” evaluates utility debt levels to measure residents’ difficulty paying rent during the pandemic. They found that one-quarter to one-third of households in Los Angeles have utility debt, but Black, Latino and lower-income neighborhoods are most severely impacted, as well as renters and people with limited English proficiency. The authors recommended developing and implementing debt-forgiveness and relief programs in order to support low-income households and severely burdened neighborhoods.
Gregory Pierce, associate director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, was featured in a Revelator article about addressing the drinking water crisis in California. The Center for Innovation collaborated on a Drinking Water Needs Assessment that provided a detailed analysis of the problem and the cost of solutions in California. The study estimated it would cost about $10 billion to address the drinking water problem, but Piece explained that small-scale regional solutions could reduce the cost and make infrastructure more integrated. “What’s really novel is that [the report] also tries to comprehensively assess where our water quality is likely to fail next if nothing is done to prevent it,” Pierce said. While the problem is expensive, he argued that the costs of not fixing the problems will be higher in the long run. “One way or the other, society pays for this and it’s better to invest up front,” he said.
Greg Pierce, associate director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, was cited in a Radio Free article discussing a report he co-authored about access to clean drinking water in California. The Center for Innovation collaborated with the California State Water Resources Control Board and others on the report, which found that 620 public water systems and 80,000 domestic wells are at risk of failing to provide affordable and uncontaminated water — an issue that will cost billions to fix. The report was “the most comprehensive assessment that’s been done on the state level anywhere in the U.S.,” Pierce said. “Drought and access and water quality are all related.” He argued that temporary solutions, like providing bottled water to people whose water systems fail, are more expensive in the long run than fixing systems before they fail.
By Michelle Einstein
California was the first U.S. state to legally recognize access to safe, clean and affordable water as a human right. But substantial parts of the state lack access to drinking water that meets those criteria.
A new study (PDF) published by the California State Water Board and supported by UCLA research identifies a risk for failure among a significant portion of the state’s small and medium-sized public water systems. The report is the first comprehensive analysis of how clean water is provided in California, and it estimates how much it would actually cost to deliver safe water to every resident.
The research was a collaboration between the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, the water board’s Needs Analysis Unit, Corona Environmental Consulting, Sacramento State University’s Office of Water Programs, the Pacific Institute and the University of North Carolina’s Environmental Finance Center.
Of the 2,779 public water systems evaluated in the study, nearly half are at some risk of failing to provide an adequate supply of safe drinking water. To measure the health of water systems, the researchers assessed each water system using 19 indicators for water quality, accessibility, affordability and operational capacity.
Based on those assessments, each system received an overall rating indicating how likely it would be to fail — from “not at risk” at the top end of the scale, to “potentially at risk” and “at risk” for the systems with the lowest scores. The researchers found 25% of water systems to be “at risk,” while an additional 23% are “potentially at risk.”
The study also identified locations where groundwater quality is out of compliance with the state’s safe water drinking standards. About one-third of domestic wells and one-half of state small water systems were found to be at a high risk for containing contaminants like nitrate and arsenic.
“Illuminating the extent of at-risk water systems is an important step,” said Gregory Pierce, the study’s principal investigator and an associate director at the Luskin Center for Innovation. “By more fully understanding the issues, we can move to more resilient and accessible water sources.”
The study noted that water quality and infrastructure issues vary substantially across the state. For instance, Kings County, in central California, has the highest proportion of at-risk public water systems (75%), while San Francisco County and Modoc County in the northern part of the state have zero at-risk systems.
The research incorporated a comprehensive evaluation of thousands of water systems and hundreds of thousands of wells, as well as input from water managers, environmental nonprofits and advocacy groups.
Among the other findings:
Holistic solutions can help.
- In the short term, bottled water and home filtration systems can be used to help communities that need clean drinking water immediately. The researchers estimate that those short-term interventions would cost between $500 million and $1.6 billion over the next five to nine years.
- Long-term solutions include enhancing water treatment; consolidating small, underperforming water systems; and providing experts to advise communities on how to improve those systems. The study estimates a wide range of total costs for those solutions, depending on which actions local systems adopt, but the midpoint estimate is about $5.7 billion.
More funding will be needed.
- The Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund, which was established in 2019 to help bring adequate drinking water to disadvantaged communities, already provides critical financial support. But for all California communities to have reliably safe drinking water, more financial resources are likely needed.
- Additional funding could come from a variety of sources, including the state legislature, the governor’s office and federal agencies.
The analysis suggests prioritizing funding for water systems that are currently most at risk and that are located in underserved communities. It also sets the stage for a deeper investigation of how the state can ensure safe, clean and affordable water for all — an especially salient issue as Congress is considering a federal infrastructure bill that would, in part, address the systems that deliver drinking water throughout the U.S.
“I’m optimistic that as a nation, we’re talking about upgrading our pipes and cleaning up our contaminated drinking water,” said Peter Roquemore, a co-author of the study and a researcher at the Luskin Center for Innovation. “Infrastructure might not always be glamorous, but the impacts of fixing our water systems would be huge.”
Over 500 participants joined the Luskin Summit 2021 webinar “Preparing for Even Wilder Wildfires” on Feb. 4 to learn about the impacts of wildfires on health, housing and infrastructure, particularly in low-income communities. The webinar was moderated by JR DeShazo, director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, and featured a panel of experts from government, nonprofits and academia. Calling 2020 a year of disastrous wildfires, Professor Michael Jerrett of the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health pointed to an indelible human fingerprint on forest mismanagement. He identified wildfires as an environmental justice issue due to the disproportionate impact on people of lower socioeconomic status. In addition to the destruction of housing and infrastructure, wildfires emit complicated mixtures of pollutants that can have negative health consequences on human populations, he said. DeShazo explained that even in an ideal wildfire management scenario, we will still face small wildfires, reinforcing the importance of developing policies to mitigate their impact on our health and environment. Gregory Pierce, associate director of the Center for Innovation, spoke about the housing affordability crisis that has led to a pattern of building homes in fire-prone areas. He suggested increasing the supply of affordable housing in areas that are not prone to wildfires, updating zoning and urban design standards, and implementing policies to increase the fire resistance of buildings. Justin Knighten, advisor to the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, highlighted the importance of infusing equity into the conversation and reimagining what it means to be prepared for wildfires while working with vulnerable communities. — Zoe Day
A team of 10 UCLA professors has earned a $956,000 award for a project that will combine their expertise in engineering, urban planning, public health and environmental law to address the rapid increase in the number of extreme heat days in Los Angeles.
The prize is funded by a 2015 donation from the Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker Family Foundation.
The project, called Heat Resilient L.A., will over the next two years determine where and when people moving around the city are most vulnerable to the effects of extreme heat — a problem being caused by climate change — and assess which communities most need cooling interventions.
Based on their findings, the team will design new cooling structures and work with local stakeholders to determine where they should be installed. The team has designed a prototype structure that resembles a bus stop shelter, but in addition to a roof that provides shade, it also uses a combination of radiant and evaporative cooling technologies to provide “passive cooling” for those nearby.
Throughout the project, the researchers plan to engage directly with communities to produce the best possible design for the cooling structures and choose the best possible locations. Among the elements that helped the project stand out: its focus on equity and community engagement, and its use of devices other than shade and trees to provide cooling for local hot spots.
“What’s unique right now is that we have access to a portfolio of solutions and technologies that hadn’t been either thought of as plausible solutions or, frankly, available even just a few years ago,” said Aaswath Raman, a member of the Heat Resilient L.A. team and an assistant professor of materials science and engineering at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering. Raman, who is designing the cooling structures using technology that has been developed in recent years at UCLA and elsewhere, said the project is an opportunity to explore the real-world use of emerging cooling technologies and materials.
That should not only help Los Angeles communities but also provide insights that he and others can use to continue building better technologies.
‘We wanted to bring together brilliant minds at UCLA who had never collaborated before, and push them to bring fresh ideas to the table.’ — Cassie Rauser, executive director of the UCLA Sustainable LA Grand Challenge
The winning project was chosen through a new UCLA initiative that upended the traditional model for conceiving and funding research projects. The program, called the Sustainable LA Grand Challenge Sandpit, emphasized connection, experimentation and blue-sky thinking.
In all, eight teams made up of more than 60 faculty members from 27 UCLA departments participated.
The program culminated in December with an online pitch event that worked more like the TV show “Shark Tank” than a typical call for proposals. Instead of preparing dense written submissions, the teams had to sell their research projects — all focused on sustainability — to a panel of jurors that included UCLA deans as well as chief sustainability officers from the city and county.
The Heat Resilient L.A. pitch was led by Raman; V. Kelly Turner, an assistant professor of urban planning at UCLA Luskin; and David Eisenman, a professor in residence at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.
The other members of the winning team are Cara Horowitz, co-executive director of the UCLA Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment; Sungtaek Ju, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, and of bioengineering; Travis Longcore, associate adjunct professor at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability; Juan Matute, deputy director of the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies; Gregory Pierce, associate director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation; Kirsten Schwarz, associate professor of urban planning; and Walker Wells, lecturer in urban planning.
“The sandpit was definitely not business as usual, and that was the point,” said Cassie Rauser, executive director of the UCLA Sustainable LA Grand Challenge, a campuswide initiative to help transform Los Angeles into the world’s most sustainable megacity by 2050. “We wanted to bring together brilliant minds at UCLA who had never collaborated before, and push them to bring fresh ideas to the table. This type of interdisciplinary problem-solving is absolutely critical for addressing Los Angeles’ complex sustainability challenges.”
Competitors were invited to develop projects that directly address goals outlined in sustainability plans put forward by Los Angeles County and the city of Los Angeles, while paying particular attention to environmental justice and equity. The “sandpit” name was meant to encourage participants to bring a childlike sense of curiosity, openness and possibility into the process.
Teams and research concepts formed over the course of three months of online workshops designed to push participants out of their disciplinary bubbles and intellectual comfort zones — a critical aspect of the experience, according to Turner, who has studied what makes interdisciplinary collaborations work.
“So often it is about the informal interactions that get folks comfortable with being uncomfortable with each other, so that they can come up with the really innovative ideas,” she said.
The seven teams that did not win the grand prize will each receive $25,000 in seed funding from the Sustainable LA Grand Challenge, which will also provide continued research development support to help the teams further develop their ideas and pursue full funding from external organizations.
“One of the most exciting aspects of the sandpit is that we heard eight fantastic pitches,” said Eric Hoek, a UCLA professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Sustainable LA Grand Challenge. “Any of those projects could make a significant, tangible contribution toward our city’s and county’s sustainability goals, and we’re excited to help them all realize their potential.”
Greg Pierce, associate director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, spoke to Bay City News about the lack of access to clean drinking water in rural regions of California. Roughly 1 million residents rely on failing water systems with contaminated drinking water. According to Pierce, “about 90% of California’s public water system violations occur in systems serving less than 500 service connections, underscoring the inherent risk of small size and lack of capacity.” Smaller systems have less revenue and often fail to provide necessary system maintenance and repairs. Pierce is leading a Center for Innovation team seeking to identify all of the small community systems and private wells that need help meeting drinking water standards. The State Water Resources Control Board has identified more than 300 systems that are out of compliance and will use the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund, established last year, to upgrade and consolidate smaller water systems.
Greg Pierce, associate director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, was featured in an Agence France-Presse article discussing the fate of communities in fire zones. Thousands of homes have been destroyed this year by deadly wildfires raging across the western United States. As the climate grows hotter, many homeowners who live in these high-risk areas are questioning the future of their communities. According to Pierce, “the idea of evicting citizens is the last solution residents want to resort to and policymakers want to resort to, because it’s so dramatic and so costly.” However, he acknowledged that “for some communities, it’s the only answer for survival.” Pierce, an adjunct assistant professor of urban planning, explained that the housing affordability crisis in California has contributed to the exponential growth of fire-prone communities built on the forested margins of cities since “it remains cheaper to build new development in outlying areas than it is in core urban areas.”
By Stan Paul
Low-income households in California face higher energy, transportation and water affordability burdens than other populations as a percentage of household income spent on utilities. Yet the existence of a number of environmental benefit programs provided by state and local agencies does not ensure that these households benefit from them.
A new pilot program designed to enable low-income households across Los Angeles County to realize more fully those benefits is off to a good start, according to a new report by the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation or LCI. The purpose of the LCI report is to provide an evaluation of the first year of the campaign, including its equity implications, the effectiveness of its outreach and areas for growth.
“The pilot stage’s reach to the most environmentally disadvantaged communities in the region was undeniably a success,” said Gregory Pierce, associate director of the center and lead author of the program evaluation, “emPOWER: A Scalable Model for Improving Community Access to Environmental Benefit Programs in California.” The report was co-authored by Rachel Connolly, a graduate student researcher at the Luskin Center for Innovation. Connolly is a doctoral student in the Environmental Health Sciences department within the Fielding School of Public Health.
The emPOWER outreach campaign was launched in 2019, with Liberty Hill Foundation, a Los Angeles-based social justice philanthropic organization, serving as regional hub administrator. Through existing community relationships, Liberty Hill funded eight community-based organizations across the county to connect low-income residents with a suite of environment-related financial assistance programs, including those offering clean and affordable energy and clean transportation. These incentive programs provide benefits including, but not limited to, utility bill savings, zero-emission vehicle incentives and energy efficiency home upgrades.
The platform was launched to realize opportunities via community relationships and to address longstanding public health issues in environmental justice communities. mark! Lopez, the executive director of one of the organizations, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, explains the importance of this neighborhood engagement in Southeast Los Angeles County.
“When our folks have limited income, that reduction [in cost] is everything,” Lopez said. “That reduction is the ability to breathe; it can mean everything for the trajectory of our families.”
“That’s the really novel aspect of the program,” said Pierce, who is also an adjunct assistant professor in urban planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. The community organizations are already connected with a lot of people who can benefit from these programs. “People trust them, and they can convey the opportunities in a much more effective way.”
Pierce pointed out that emPOWER benefit programs are brought together in one place enabling households to sign up at once, “instead of a number of separate programs that are hard for people to understand or sign up for. It’s great that there are so many programs but at this point they can be operated and communicated in a more coherent way.”
The emPOWER program will continue to operate in Los Angeles County in 2020, with goals to expand the campaign model beyond Los Angeles, first to the Inland Empire and ultimately statewide. Broadening and deepening this campaign can help ensure a just transition in the process of climate change adaptation over the next several decades, according to the authors.
- The emPOWER campaign serves as a replicable model for the state. It prioritizes funding to authentic grassroots organizations working to build power in communities on the front lines of industrial pollution.
- Despite some administrative challenges, the campaign engaged more than 11,000 distinct households and received over 2,700 eligibility applications.
- Especially compared to existing individual programs, the campaign was highly successful in reaching communities disproportionately affected by systemic racism, poverty, pollution and now the pandemic. Over 90% of emPOWER participants live in a state-identified disadvantaged community or low-income community census tract.
- Monetary benefits for participants are tremendous. On average, each emPOWER participant is eligible for more than nine incentive programs. Eligible participants can receive hundreds of dollars in benefits for their electric, gas and water utility bills. For instance, the average participant could receive $320 annually in electricity bill assistance through Southern California Edison’s CARE program. In addition, many participants can receive up to $9,500 in benefits to trade in an old gas-guzzling vehicle for an electric car through the Replace Your Ride program.
- Notable process successes of the campaign included community organizations’ ability to build upon existing relationships with their communities, a focus on program benefits that participants were consistently motivated to apply for, and active technical assistance and program adaptation. Frequently reported challenges that need to be addressed in future phases of the program include community hesitation and misconceptions regarding emPOWER and the associated incentive programs.
By Michelle Einstein
Efforts to ensure safe drinking water for children need further support to reach their intended audience, according to an analysis of California’s mandate requiring child care facilities to test their water for lead, known as AB 2370.
The finding from the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation is part of a new report and policy brief that examine strategies for developing and implementing the state’s testing and remediation program for those sites. Among its recommendations, the report stresses the need for a dedicated funding stream to ensure the program’s success.
“We’ve learned from a similar program in California’s schools that if robust monitoring and funding doesn’t exist, much of the needed testing and remediation won’t be implemented,” said Gregory Pierce, associate director of the center and lead author of the study.
In order to be successful, Pierce predicts, the program will require five to 10 times more funding than the $5 million currently budgeted by the state.
To determine how to best implement the program, the researchers synthesized feedback from a variety of stakeholders, including child care providers, environmental justice advocates and water utilities. They found several current shortcomings, including the fact that many child care providers have not received directives to test their water and that the program’s messaging is only available in English and Spanish.
The study recommends that stakeholders at all levels have a voice in helping to design the program to correct problems. A co-design process that includes parents, day care centers, utilities and state agencies will result in higher compliance rates and confirm that all centers have their facilities tested in a timely manner, the researchers say.
It is also important that the program not increase mistrust of tap water in settings where such concern is unmerited, according to the report. For instance, after hearing about the lead testing program, some day care centers and parents began using bottled beverages, even though their drinking water was clean. Bottled water can be expensive and has a negative environmental impact.
Lead exposure poses an acute threat to young children and their families. Even low-level exposure has been connected to loss in IQ, hearing impairments and learning disabilities. Recognizing this threat, California passed Assembly Bill 2370 in 2018, which mandates the testing of drinking water for lead at licensed child care facilities built before 2010. These sites must complete the tests before 2023 and, if elevated levels are found, remedy the problem or find alternative sources of water.
AB 2370 represents a meaningful step toward further protecting children’s health, the researchers say, but implementing the law remains a huge feat. Thousands of day care centers must test and clean up their plumbing systems, and many of these facilities are experiencing funding and staffing shortages, especially during the coronavirus pandemic.
Overall, the researchers view the program as an important step toward ensuring the human right to clean water for all Californians. A more streamlined and supported implementation process, they say, would help officials better deliver on-the-ground results statewide.
The study was funded by First 5 LA, an independent public agency working to strengthen systems, parents and communities so that by 2028, all children in Los Angeles County will enter kindergarten ready to succeed in school and life.