Louisville Takes a Jobs-First Approach to Water Equity

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The Metropolitan Sewer District of Louisville, Kentucky, might seem an unlikely place to jumpstart a conversation on more equitable cities. But after Mayor Greg Fisher made economic inclusion a priority of his administration, MSD’s chief executive Tony Parrott was inspired. He knew barriers existed in low-income communities to participate in the local water infrastructure workforce. In the face of climate change, as addressing that infrastructure has become more pressing, he wanted to prioritize hiring members of the community not traditionally recruited to that sector.

For the past year and a half, the Metropolitan Sewer District and local stakeholders have participated in the US Water Alliance’s Water Equity Taskforce, an initiative for cities to collaborate on equitable water policies and practices and determine best practices. Cities include Atlanta, Georgia; Buffalo, New York; Camden, New Jersey; Cleveland, Ohio; Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In April, Buffalo was the first city to release its Water Equity Roadmap, which identifies critical challenges in achieving water equity, including affordability, water quality and infrastructure. Louisville went in a different direction with its report released this summer. The city will focus on achieving equity in its growing water sector workforce.

“What we’re going to see in Louisville, because of this work, is a whole new generation of people in the water workforce who would have not been there if not for the work of this task force,” says Radhika Fox, chief executive of the US Water Alliance.

One goal of the task force was to engage cities in defining water equity. “To us, water equity is fundamentally about three things,” Fox says. “We need to ensure all people have safe, reliable access to water; we have to generate jobs and community benefits through infrastructure in the water space; and we’re making sure all communities are resilient in the face of a changing climate.”

Another goal was for cities to release roadmaps outlining a local strategy in achieving water equity. Camden, Atlanta, Milwaukee, Cleveland and Pittsburgh will release their own later this year.

In Louisville, climate-change-induced flooding has become more common and rebuilding and rehabbing Louisville’s aging water and wastewater infrastructure is now critical. According to the city, more than half of Louisville’s pump stations are beyond their designed lifespan.

Louisville’s most marginalized communities are also most vulnerable to climate change. One of the lowest-lying areas of the city is the west side, where the city has historically concentrated its residents of color through segregation and redlining.

Parrott ultimately saw an opportunity to create job pipelines for members of climate-vulnerable communities, alongside small, minority- and women-owned contractors.

“The measure is that for every dollar you invest in infrastructure, it leads to approximate 16 direct or indirect jobs in the local community,” Parrott says. “So, how do you start to open up opportunities for folks to have career paths inside our organizations …?”

As part of a 2018 research project with the Brookings Institution, Metropolitan Sewer District identified who has access to water sector jobs. The analysis found an aging, homogeneous workforce, 30 percent of whom will retire in the next five years.

Louisville officials celebrate the release of the city's water equity roadmap. (Courtesy MSD)

Joining the Water Equity Taskforce allowed MSD to assemble a “learning team” to engage various stakeholders like the Louisville Water Company and Louisville Urban League about new hiring practices.

“We brought minority contractors into the Urban League to hear about what their experience had been and how doing business with MSD and other agencies could be made easier,” says Sadiqa Reynolds, president of the Urban League. “We then began talking about how to help with recruiting, because there’s such a need for recruiting.”

The resulting roadmap, titled “An Equitable Water Future: Louisville,” identifies procurement and hiring practices and the development of equity-focused programs. The report explores apprenticeship programs, technical and soft skills training, procurement incentives and youth education in water.

The roadmap also touches on local issues around water affordability, aging infrastructure, funding constraints and the flooding and climate impacts on marginalized communities.

Parrott acknowledges that resiliency planning needs to include quality of life issues beyond infrastructure.“We have to be at the table with other government and corporate partners to frame this initiative more broadly,” he says.

With the roadmap now out, stakeholders plan to meet quarterly to work on implementation and further community engagement. There’s already been progress. This January, while the team prepared its water equity roadmap, the Metropolitan Sewer District board approved a formal Community Benefits Policy that will provide employment, contracting, education, and community improvements for service areas impacted by MSD’s construction projects.

Parrott hopes the work will increasingly align with the city’s broader resiliency strategy, released this June as part of the 100 Resilient Cities challenge. Both plans, he adds, have placed equity front and center.

“You can’t have resiliency if you don’t have equity, compassion and trust,” Parrott says. “And you can’t talk about equity until you acknowledge there’s inequity. You have to talk about historical inequity in order to have an honest, productive and progressive plan.”

Emily Nonko is a Brooklyn, New York-based reporter who writes about real estate, architecture, urbanism and design. Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Magazine, Curbed and other publications.

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