Ocean Justice Requires Climate Action for All

New study shows why we need equitable investments in critical water infrastructure

For ocean advocates like me who have been tracking the $1.5 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) rollout, the need for this long overdue investment in climate resilience is crystal clear. The law earmarks $50 billion for improving critical water infrastructure, like drinking water, stormwater and wastewater systems that are essential for maintaining safe, functioning communities and ecosystems. In coastal counties, which are home to about 40% of the United States’ population, critical water infrastructure is growing more vulnerable to climate change and faces a host of compounding hazards such as sea level rise and flooding, heavy precipitation and extreme storm surges. While swift implementation of climate funds is important, it’s vital that decision-makers are careful to deliver on President Biden’s Justice40 promise, a whole-of-government framework that instructs federal agencies to more equitably deliver climate investments to under-resourced communities. 

Ocean Conservancy’s Justice40 interim report dives into research conducted in Florida at the nexus of failing water infrastructure, climate risk, and federal infrastructure investments in disadvantaged communities. Florida, one of the most climate-vulnerable states in the country, received a C rating or lower for water infrastructure types assessed by the American Society of Civil Engineers, signaling that robust investments from the BIL are essential. 

Despite its importance for our communities and the environment, critical water infrastructure across the United States is increasingly aging and failing. In 2023 alone, countless instances of climate-related water system failures have made headlines. In South Louisiana, record-low water levels in the Mississippi River, coupled with rising sea levels in the Gulf of Mexico, are causing saltwater to creep north up the river, damaging drinking water pipes and water intake systems. Communities living in southern parishes that tend to be low-income have had to rely on bottled water for drinking and cooking since June to avoid the adverse health impacts of consuming saltwater. A deteriorating wastewater treatment plant in San Diego near the U.S.-Mexico border is causing sewage overflows to contaminate beaches and waters in Southern California. This crisis became considerably worse when Hurricane Hilary inundated the area with heavy rains in August. In low-lying Southeast Florida, residents are constantly plagued by severe floods that engulf roadways and destroy property. Each time I visit Miami during the rainy season, I am struck by the height of floodwaters, rising up onto sidewalks and spilling out from retention ponds. Further communicating the need for upgrades to stormwater infrastructure, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has continued to document instances of record high-tide flooding from coast to coast. Without significant efforts to prepare critical water infrastructure for worsening climate impacts, the well-being of coastal communities and the health of our ocean will continue to be jeopardized.

Not all coastal populations bear the same burden from water infrastructure failure and other impacts. Communities of Black and Indigenous peoples, other people of color and those experiencing intergenerational poverty are often disproportionately overburdened by climate change, environmental degradation and under-funded infrastructure. Nearly 60% of the population living in coastal cities identify as Black, Indigenous or people of color, so these historically neglected groups near the coast should benefit the most from the BIL and other resources to cope with climate impacts, keeping in line with the administration’s Justice40 vision.

To better understand the nature of critical water infrastructure risk and funding disparities at a localized scale, we conducted a geospatial analysis studying systemically disadvantaged communities exposed to the cumulative effects of failing water systems, water pollution and coastal climate impacts. This research focused on the cities of Jacksonville and Orlando and Miami-Dade County in Florida. A funding gap analysis uncovered that, despite being the most impacted by failing critical water infrastructure, overburdened Black and brown communities received fewer infrastructure dollars from two Environmental Protection Agency clean water and drinking water funding sources that received once-in-a-generation investments from the BIL in 2021. This phase of the study also highlighted major challenges associated with leveraging federal infrastructure dollars from the perspectives of local decision-makers and community residents. Some challenges identified include limited capacity to complete funding applications, a lack of transparency regarding funding availability, and competing funding priorities that often leave out disadvantaged communities. The methodology and results of this study could be duplicated in other locations to support community advocacy and identify areas in need of climate investments.

Street Flooding

Being a lead researcher on this study, I’ve had an opportunity to carefully observe the implementation of Justice40 and the BIL over time. One of my biggest takeaways is that, as resources continue to be rolled out by the government, members of the public must be attentive and work together to ensure that our decision-makers do not repeat longstanding legacies of leaving the most impacted communities behind. Here are some important first steps to get informed and spread knowledge to mobilize our peers. Ask yourself and your network: 

  • “Who is disproportionately impacted and what infrastructure projects do they want for their communities? 
  • What money is available and where is it being allocated? 
  • What are the best ways to hold state and local decision-makers accountable? 
  • How am I positioned to help?”

We must treat this time of historic investment as an all-hands-on-deck moment, especially as climate justice and clean water access continue to emerge as central to today’s movement for human rights and planetary healing. Check out our new Justice40 interim report to learn more.

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