Navigating the Intersection: Western Water, Climate Change, and Public Health ~ A Conversation with Laura Briefer, Dr. Linda Rudolph and Dr. Tracy Delaney
The public health sector can play a critical role in ensuring that our climate mitigation and adaptation strategies optimize health and equity outcomes. Dr. Linda Rudolph, Public Health Institute
The Water is Life webinar was full of rich conversation and built dialogue among experts in the field. We heard from Dr. Linda Rudolph about the health effects of climate change and what needs to be done to accelerate work being done on the ground. Laura Briefer gave us an overview of some of the challenges facinger water managers throughout the American West and what her community is doing to be better prepared in the future. Dr. Tracy Delaney moderated the session, weaving big picture questions with smaller, more easily definable ones to get at the crux of the issues. Our highly engaged audience had some great questions – check out the interview below to see what our panelists had to say.
Dr. Tracy Delaney (TD): What are the top three actions that public health departments could take right now to have a positive impact on water and public health?
Dr. Linda Rudolph: First, we must work to reduce greenhouse gas emissions so that the climate change impacts are not catastrophic. And that really means working in concert with decision-makers, community-based organizations, and NGOs to rapidly transform our energy, transportation, and agriculture systems to reduce greenhouse gases. It’s also really important to note that the public health sector can play a critical role in ensuring that our climate mitigation and adaptation strategies optimize health and equity outcomes.
Second, a lot of people have talked about changing water rate structures to incentivize conservation of water. If we do that, we need to make sure that we’re not further disadvantaging low-income communities and communities of color that are already paying excessive amounts to access clean water.
Similarly we need to make sure that our policies support disadvantaged communities, and ensure that the most impacted communities have a seat at the table. The public health sector also has a critical role in enhancing cross-sector collaborations for climate, health, and equity.
TD: How do we set ourselves up to be effective during an emergency response so that we’re addressing what needs to happen in the community?
Laura Briefer: One of the most important ways we can set ourselves up to be successful in response to an emergency or an acute event is to not be meeting our partners for the first time during the event. We need to be thinking strategically about what our vulnerabilities might be and who we need to be reaching out to in advance. With, for instance, the big toxic algae bloom this summer in the Salt Lake Valley we’d already great relationships set up with our state and local health departments on water quality issues. This allowed us to be a lot more nimble in that emergency response.
What we also learned was that we need to connect with other partners in the agricultural community so that the next time we have an emergency, we know the right people to talk to, we know who has the information, and who has the research. Early on we needed to figure out the threshold levels (of algae cell counts and of the algae toxins) that would trigger different types of exposure restrictions such as no swimming, no eating fish, no exposure through pressurized water systems, etc. We had good relationships with researchers and health experts so we could quickly identify the thresholds needed to use in that event.
TD: You mentioned that you had already developed a relationship with public health related to water quality. Can you expand just a little bit on that? Had you also created a plan of working together if there was an acute event?
Laura Briefer: We have a long-standing relationship with our local public health department, Salt Lake County Health Department. We share some regulatory responsibilities in terms of water quality, and we already have an operational working relationship on water quality issues. We’ve recently initiated with our health department and other stakeholders is the Utah Climate Action Network, where we set the stage for discussions of potential climate vulnerabilities and how we might evaluate those vulnerabilities and respond to them. That has really helped us think even further about the different events that can happen that we may not anticipate.
TD: What do you think about the role of health insurers given these health connections and links?
Dr. Linda Rudolph: That’s a really interesting question. One role is for health insurers to help in the process of engaging and educating healthcare professionals to understand what the risks are and to understand the need to be on the lookout for some of the impacts that they may not otherwise be aware of. Health systems are required to conduct community health needs assessments, and they can work with local health departments and community organizations to conduct those needs assessments. They can start to incorporate climate change more broadly and, specifically, incorporate assessments of vulnerability of local water systems and vulnerable populations within the community to the impacts of climate change and other degradations of water supply.
TD: Is there work going on with utilities to reduce emissions?
Laura Briefer: Yes, that’s actually a very important component of our overall climate response. For Salt Lake City and in particular for my utility, we have a couple of different strategies. The first one, since we’re such a large energy user in the system, is to build efficiency into our water system operations. So we have a sort of a wire to water strategy of reducing our use of energy and ultimately our emissions using efficiency.
The second piece is to use our system to generate renewable energy. Last year, we finished our renewable energy plan for our system that includes hydropower and solar power. We have a lot of solar power resources because we have a number of covered reservoirs on our system that are conducive to solar power, and can generate quite a bit of energy. In our wastewater plant, we also have a cogeneration plant – that’s the long answer.
TD: Are there good examples of where health departments have been engaged and/or have created some best practices with water departments and utilities and/or community vulnerabilities as it relates to flooding and drought?
Dr. Linda Rudolph: In my presentation I mentioned Tulare County where the local health department, in concert with other county agencies, really had to step up to the plate to make sure that thousands of people whose taps have run dry were able to get water for drinking and sanitation. While it certainly wasn’t an ideal situation, they dealt with it admirably in setting up community showers, bottled water delivery systems, and large deliveries of water to tanks located around the community to at least reduce the impacts of this disruption in water supply.
Additionally, the Milwaukee Health Department is working with several community-based organizations to set up some rainwater harvesting systems that will be used to provide water to community gardens. They’re doing that in concert with homeless shelters and are providing training on installation and design of rainwater systems. That’s a very multifaceted approach that integrates water and community access to healthy food and job training.
TD: In your presentation, you shared that a million people in California do not have access to reliable water. It’s incredibly shocking that most of these are low-income communities of color who are bearing the brunt of these impacts. Would both of you highlight what you think are some of the ways that we should be approaching this, both programmatically and at local level.
Dr. Linda Rudolph: You’re asking a very critical question – there are four things that are really important. First, it’s very important that local health departments, water utilities, and water environmental protection agencies collaborate closely and support community-based organizations. We have a number of them in California’s Central Valley, like the Community Water Center and the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water, that are really doing this work at a local level, understand the community experience and can raise up policy solutions that do address health and equity considerations.
Second, it’s very important that the public health community support efforts to adequately fund and implement both short and long term solutions to inadequate drinking water infrastructure in poor communities. Third, we need to support policies that protect our precious water resources. We really cannot allow oil and gas development and industrialized agriculture to continue polluting our water.
And finally, we need to support policies that protect disadvantaged communities; provide them with the advantages of water saving devices even if they’re in rental units; provide greater relief that meets the needs of lower-income households; and ensure that water pricing infrastructure addresses people’s basic needs.
TD: I’m wondering from the water utility point-of-view, what do you think are the top ways to address those inequities?
Laura Briefer: From a local government standpoint and water utility perspective we need to think about several things. When we set water rates we need to be very sensitive to low-income communities, and to folks that may not necessarily be engaged in that process. Equity in water rates is a very important issue. We also need to make sure, for instance, during an emergency or an acute event, that we have the outreach and engagement ready for those communities because oftentimes we’re not going to easily find them. And again, the algae event was a good example of that where, as a utility, I did not recognize that we had a significant refugee community that gets part of their sustenance from fish in the Jordan River. Or, that we have many homeless communities and camps next to the river. We need to keep our eyes open on a local level, for those that may not have the power to raise their voices and make sure we’re identifying and responding to those communities effectively.
Dr. Tracy Delaney, Ph.D., R.D., is Executive Director of the Public Health Alliance of Southern California (Alliance). Tracy leads innovative, multidisciplinary initiatives resulting integration of health within land use and transportation, food systems and regional community indicators.
Laura Briefer is Director of Salt Lake City Public Utilities. Salt Lake City is already working to address the impacts of a warming climate on their water resources and the resulting health consequences.
Dr. Linda Rudolph is a national expert on the health effects of climate change and a top policy advisor in this field.
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