New Lab Aims to Advance Access to Affordable, Safe Water  UCLA’s Human Right to Water Solutions Lab expands research on drinking water across the nation

Since 2012, Californians have had a legal right to clean water — yet safe, affordable water is not always easily accessible throughout the state.

Issues like high water bills, contaminated water sources and outdated infrastructure complicate water access, especially in frontline communities — all against a backdrop of chronic drought in some of our most water-limited regions. Researchers are working to find solutions that make water access more just, including at a new research lab at UCLA.

To address the most pressing challenges in realizing safe, clean water throughout the country, the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation has launched the Human Right to Water Solutions Lab. The lab is led by Gregory Pierce, co-director of the Luskin Center for Innovation, adjunct assistant professor in the Luskin School of Public Affairs and co-director of the UCLA Water Resources Group. In addition, the lab is advised by collaborators from across the nation.  

Pierce and his research team have helped to guide California’s efforts to provide safe drinking water for all residents, as well as develop a plan for the first statewide low-income water rate assistance program in the nation. Now, the new lab is expanding its work across the country to support policy, advocacy and civic leadership solutions to improve water access, quality and affordability — the three key pillars of the human right to water.

“As lab director, I hope to cultivate a space to collectively improve access to clean water,” Pierce said. “This lab builds on the Luskin Center for Innovation’s broader goals to collaborate with community leaders and policymakers who can use our research to advance environmental equity.”

The lab has three objectives:

  • Advance fundamental research on water access, quality and affordability solutions
  • Support and amplify the efforts of community, scholarly and policy partners working to realize the human right to water
  • Make data and training resources collected or generated through research more useful to the public

The new Los Angeles County Water Governance Mapping Tool illustrates the lab’s dedication to making data more accessible and useful for the public. Developed in collaboration with community-based organizations and the Water Foundation, this interactive visualization tool provides information about Los Angeles County’s complex network of water systems, each managed by a separate set of decision-makers and policies.

“We’re hoping to support Angelenos to understand where their water comes from and who is managing it,” said Peter Roquemore, a researcher in the lab and at the Luskin Center for Innovation. “There are more than 200 different community water systems in the county — it’s a complex system. This information can help hold water system leaders accountable to provide clean and affordable drinking water.”

The Human Right to Water Solutions Lab builds on the work of the Luskin Center for Innovation’s water program, which, under Pierce’s leadership, has grown over the past seven years from a single staff member to a team of more than 15 staff and students producing research to advance water access and equity. 

Map of Los Angeles County water districts

Visit UCLA’s new Los Angeles County Water Governance Mapping Tool to search an address and access information including:

  • Name of the water system that supplies water to the address
  • Names of board members who direct the policies of that water system
  • Demographics, tenure, and pay of individual board members
  • Methods for selecting board members, including eligibility and election cycles
  • Average cost and relative affordability of water from the system
  • Safety and quality of water from the system
  • Water operator qualifications

Pierce Explores Inequitable Access to Drinking Water

Gregory Pierce, co-director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, spoke to Capital & Main about how to help communities facing water quality challenges. A newly updated tap water database by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group includes drinking water data between 2014 and 2019 across all 50 states, illustrating wide disparities in water quality across systems. People living in underserved communities, especially in areas with high Black and Latino populations, face a disproportionate risk, the data showed. Pierce said the database provides an impressive translation of federal and state data and also raises wider questions, such as what alternatives are readily available to vulnerable communities facing water quality challenges. He noted that clear-cut answers are not always easy to come by, since bottled water is also associated with high costs and loose regulations. “Unless a system’s failing to meet the basic regulatory standards, I don’t think there’s a good case to say that bottled water is better,” Pierce said.


Pierce on Municipal Approaches to Heat

Gregory Pierce, co-director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, co-authored an article in Planetizen discussing different cities’ approaches to addressing extreme heat. “People of color and those with lower incomes are disproportionately exposed to heat, and the largest health risks fall on seniors, young children and those with chronic conditions,” Pierce wrote. Climate change has led to an increase in heat-related deaths and hospitalizations. In a recent paper published in the Journal of Planning Education and Research, Pierce and his co-authors analyzed surveys by California’s Office of Planning and Research to determine what factors influence whether municipalities actively plan for extreme heat and what kinds of heat-related planning and policy innovations they have adopted. The authors recommended making social equity a top priority in heat adaptation planning. They called for engaging with local communities and directing investments where they are needed most to eliminate thermal inequity.

Read the article Read the full paper

Pierce on Safety Hazard of Mobile Homes

Greg Pierce, co-director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, spoke to ProPublica about the climate gap, which refers to the disproportionate and unequal impacts of the climate crisis. Across the United States, people of color, the poor and the undocumented are more likely to live in hotter places and less likely to have access to potable water. In Thermal, California, the population is 99% Latino, and many residents live in mobile trailer homes without clean running water or air conditioning. How mobile homes are going to fare in the climate crisis is, “quite frankly, not the sexiest to academics,” said Pierce, noting that residents of older manufactured housing are at great risk. In California, mobile homes are disproportionately located in the hottest census tracts, and poor insulation can drive up cooling costs. Furthermore, mobile homes built before 1976 are not up to date with new building and safety standards, creating additional safety hazards.


Water Should Be Affordable for All, Pierce Says

Gregory Pierce, an adjunct assistant professor of urban planning, spoke to KQED about his concerns about equity in the attempt to provide clean drinking water to California cities. In response to the drought, Marin County is considering building a desalination plant and pipeline that would draw in water from the San Francisco Bay. After studying the impact that desalination could have on low-income and marginalized communities, Pierce concluded that “desalination can be part of the answer [in California], but it’s not the best answer right now or in the near term.” Using desalination to produce drinking water from seawater fails to encourage people to adopt habits that conserve freshwater resources, and it can also negatively impact the environment. Instead, Pierce argued that recycling water or fixing infrastructure is a faster and less-expensive solution than constructing a desalination plant. “As a concept, desalination sounds good, but it’s not usually delivered equitably,” said Pierce, co-director of the Luskin Center for Innovation at UCLA. “If water is truly a human right, it should be affordable to everyone.”

Read the article

UCLA Report Highlights Inequality in Utility Debt Burden

Scholars from the UCLA Center for Neighborhood Knowledge (CNK) and UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation (LCI) collaborated on the new report “Keeping the Lights and Heat On: COVID-19 Utility Debt,” which analyzed the burden of household utility debt for many families, especially in low-income neighborhoods. The report, co-authored by CNK Director Paul Ong and LCI Associate Director Greg Pierce, used data from Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), an investor-owned utility that provides electricity and gas service to about 40% of California residents, in order to quantify the prevalence and degree of residential past-due accounts and debt. The authors explained that utility debt levels serve as a useful proxy to track households that are facing difficulties paying their rent or mortgage, particularly during economic crises. While roughly 6% of the Northern and Central California households served by PG&E are facing financial difficulties paying for most essential services, utility debt burden is highest among Black, Latino and economically vulnerable neighborhoods, the study found. PG&E recently announced that it will extend a moratorium on utility service disconnections through September 30, although many other emergency customer protections put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic have expired. The authors of the report recommend allocating funding to debt-forgiveness programs for low-income households and severely impacted neighborhoods. They plan to replicate the study in non-PG&E service areas  to better understand the impact of energy and water bill debt across regions. — Zoe Day


Report Documents Struggle to Keep the Lights and Water On

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.


Pierce on Tackling Failing Water Systems in California

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.


Pierce Recommends Investing in Clean Water Now

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.


Report Sets Path Toward Clean Drinking Water for all Californians Study co-authored by UCLA Luskin researchers finds hundreds of public water systems are out of compliance

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.”