Equipping an ecosystem of advocates to address water challenges

Photo:Stephanie Ryder Morris

Water is a critical natural resource for people and the environment. In Texas, climate change, a growing population and aging infrastructure pose significant threats to ensuring clean water for community needs, protecting residents from flooding, and nurturing healthy habitats. With support from the Jacob and Terese Hershey Foundation, advocates across the state are working to address key water challenges.

© 2023 Arazelly Alcazar
© 2023 Arazelly Alcazar
Photo courtesy of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

For example, advocates are empowering vulnerable communities to address urban flooding. West Street Recovery equipped residents of northeast Houston to successfully advocate for additional city funding for drainage improvements, and for the city to assume the maintenance of local drainage ditches. Go Austin/Vamos Austin, or GAVA, engaged residents of southeast Austin to successfully secure enhancements to several planned flood infrastructure projects, and is working with community members to develop an alternative vision for flood mitigation that incorporates local data and lived experiences.

Advocates are also working with communities to address water quality. After Bayou City Waterkeeper’s lawsuit spurred $2 billion of investment to address pollution from Houston’s neglected sanitary sewer infrastructure, the organization secured a similar consent decree in Baytown and is working with community members to create a $20 million sewer lateral assistance program for Houston residents. Save Barton Creek Association and its coalition partners helped convince the state to issue a wastewater discharge permit with the lowest-ever limit on algae-causing phosphorus – a landmark step in protecting pristine streams throughout Texas. And in east Austin, PODER is leading a coalition to advance a community-centric vision for protecting and restoring the Colorado River from the Longhorn Dam to the Travis County line, and watchdogging industrial polluters along the waterway.

Advocates for water quality, urban flooding and equitable infrastructure investment
Photo by Annie Mulligan

In addition, advocates are working to inform statewide water policy. The Texas Living Waters coalition helped shape the state’s new $1 billion water infrastructure fund and is working to ensure that it invests in resilient water supplies and prioritizes the communities most in need. The coalition is also engaging in the development of Texas’ first State Flood Plan, aiming to ensure a focus on nature-based flood mitigation strategies. The Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club will be organizing communities to engage in the every-three-year update of the state’s surface water quality standards, prioritizing more stringent permitting requirements for industrial pollution and a no-discharge standard for pre-production plastic pollution, or “nurdles.”

According to Ayanna Jolivet Mccloud, Executive Director of Bayou City Waterkeeper, “We must build water policy solutions from the ground up, starting with community. Residents most impacted by water injustices – loss of green infrastructure, aged sewer lines, polluted waterways – deserve a seat at the table and the full benefits of equitable infrastructure investment.”