2018 Symposium: Building Municipal Water Self-Determination in Diverse Metropolitan Communities

The University of Denver Water Law Review Annual Symposium 2018: Forging Sovereignty, Self Determination, And Solidarity Through Water Law

Denver, Colorado                         Friday, March 30, 2018


The final panel of the day, titled “Building Municipal Water Self-Determination in Diverse Metropolitan Communities,” explored how working-class and minority communities use, access, and are impacted by water.  Tom Romero, Assistant Provost of Inclusive Excellence Research and Curriculum Initiatives and Professor of Law at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law, presided as moderator for the panel.  The speakers came from a range of backgrounds, including Daniel J. Arnold, Staff Attorney for Denver Water, Lizeth Chacón, the Executive Director of the Colorado People’s Alliance (“COPA”), and Khyla Craine, Assistant General Counsel for the NAACP.

Professor Romero gave a brief introduction of the panelists and stated that the goal of this panel was to engage in a discussion around the disparity in access to water for marginalized communities.  He then asked the panelists to speak on their connections to this discussion and their background on water issues.

Kyla Craine spoke first regarding her background with the NAACP and her part in advancing equal water access for under-served and neglected communities.  According to Craine, she plays the role of an environmental lawyer through the lens of social justice.  In this role, she tries to empower local communities to seek safe and equitable access to clean water for drinking and sanitation.

She went on to explain that the NAACP became involved in water issues around 2006 by fighting against waste emanating from coal fired powered plants and their polluting effects on air and water quality.  These plants often deposit coal ash waste—including carcinogens such as mercury, arsenic, lead, and chromium—in waterways.  Those who are most affected tend to be poor, marginalized, politically depressed, and communities of color.  NAACP used litigation and community activism to shut down plants causing this pollution. Out of this mission grew a larger social justice concern for the NAACP to provide safe water for drinking and sanitation throughout the United States.

One of the current major focuses of the NAACP is lead contamination in water supplies. The most publicized case takes place in Flint, Michigan, where lead contamination has affected over 9,000 children.  This was caused by a series of institutional failures in switching water supplies that corroded old lead pipes in the municipal water system.  Now, residents are economically trapped because poor residents already lacked the means to leave, and now their property values have also plummeted due to the contamination.  However, this problem is not unique to Flint.  A Reuters report found over 3,000 American communities had higher levels of lead than Flint.  Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Missouri all have shown elevated levels of lead in children.  There are many sources, ranging from coal ash waste in rural areas to leeching from old pipes.  To combat this, NAACP takes varying approaches—ranging from litigation to activism—always with the goal of empowering citizens to advocate on behalf of their communities to combat this silent problem.

Lizeth Chacón spoke next about the Colorado People’s Alliance and their grass root efforts towards racial and economic justice for clean water.  Their efforts began by fighting against fracking in local communities, and has evolved into a comprehensive water justice campaign.  COPA’s work on water begins within the individual community.  COPA members have been participating in a grass roots door-to-door campaign to raise awareness about fracking in local communities.  Through these conversations, COPA has found that over fifty percent of citizens in Commerce City and Montbello, Colorado do not feel like their water is safe for use, and they rely heavily on bottled water as an alternative.  COPA noticed a clear correlation between unsafe drinking water and community based racial and economic divides.

COPA has started working with these communities to look for a solution to this problem.  Part of this process involves helping people get their water tested to ascertain if the water is, in fact, contaminated.  The second component is trying to figure out where these safety issues are coming from.  Are they leaks from old infrastructures, do they come from mining activities, or are they brought about from some other source?  According to Chacón, at the end of the day, everyone deserves clean and safe water, and the current consensus is that that need is not being met.  So, COPA is stepping up to help communities find a solution.

Daniel Arnold rounded out the panel as a thirteen-year veteran of Denver Water’s general counsel.  His work has focused on water quantity and quality issues for the City and County of Denver.  But recently, water quality has become an issue of great importance, whether it is keeping operating mines in check to ensure they do not pollute into watersheds or expanding the State’s reclaimed water regulations to add new and non-potable uses for reclaimed water.  Denver Water also works on a lead response program to identify and help replace sources of lead contamination.

To give a bit of background on Denver Water, Arnold walked listeners through how the utility was created over 100 years ago as an independent agency of the City and County of Denver.  It now serves approximately 330 square miles and 1.4 million people.  Arnold described Denver Water as the beneficiary of timing, geography, and hydrology—all leading to providing clean, quality water to many communities throughout Colorado’s Front Range.  Denver’s rights are more senior than many other water rights in Colorado, allowing for a consistent, uninterrupted water source.  They source water primarily form the Upper Colorado Basin and Upper South Platte River, diverting relatively pristine sources of water for their customers.  Hydrologically, most of the water comes from cleaner surface water, while many other communities rely on underground water sources contaminated by waste seepage.  Timing, geography, and hydrology combine to allow Denver Water to supply water that meets and exceeds EPA standards.

But Denver Water is still mindful of other pollution sources like lead. This largely comes from the customer line connections or lead solder and fixtures in the lines.  Since, historically, customers have owned their own service lines, there isn’t a good record of where the lead that does leach into the system originates.  However, research shows lead service lines predominate in houses built in the 1950s or earlier, before copper lines came into use.  Denver Water has concluded that there are approximately 15,000 lead service lines in the Denver area.  Denver Water has started a program to provide free water quality tests to determine if customers have a lead service line or fixture.  It also provides loans, at little or no interest, to remove and replace these fixtures.  These programs are designed to ensure that anyone can check and reasonably protect the quality of their water coming from Denver Water.

With opening remarks concluded, the panel moved on to the question and answer segment.  Romero began the discussion with questions regarding the challenges faced by different communities seeking safe water access.  The questions revolved around issues such as how context matters when thinking about water access and delivery (e.g., rural versus metropolitan, or urban versus suburban).  Arnold pointed out that urban areas have deeper pockets to pay for the construction of expensive water quality systems, and greater access to certified, trained professionals.  As a result, rural communities often get left in the lurch.  Craine agreed pointing out how, in the southern and eastern parts of the United States, waste from coal fired plants tends to be located in rural communities.  This is because cities tend to have a stronger voice to say “not in my backyard.”  Chacón had a slightly different take.  In her experience, economic class seemed to play a larger role. For instance, from COPA’s canvasing efforts, they found distrust of the local water was concentrated in communities of color and in working class communities where the median annual income is $60,000 and under.

It was interesting to note the different perspectives of the panelists to common issues.  Craine and Chacón viewed water access through a more civil rights and social justice perspective, while Arnold was steeped deep in Colorado water law, particularly in the Prior Appropriation doctrine.  However, all the panelists often agreed on the sources of the problem and what viable solutions might look like.  Ultimately, it was invaluable to hear these varied perspectives on how to tackle these impending issues and reconcile the problems created by disparate access to and availability of clean water.



Michael Larrick