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By Betsy Gardner • September 27, 2019

In Louisville, Kentucky, city officials are approaching water equity through an economic development lens. Louisville’s Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD) is participating in the US Water Alliance’s multi-city Water Equity Taskforce. The Taskforce is an organized network of cities that initiate “more equitable water policies and practices” by engaging local government, utility companies, and community groups. MSD chose to focus on the growing water sector workforce, which traditionally isn’t a diverse group; in 2018 the Brookings Institute and MSD studied water sector jobs, and discovered an aging, homogeneous workforce in the city. Yet approximately 30 percent of that labor pool is going to retire in the next few years, which officials saw as an opportunity to diversify the water workforce in Louisville. 

MSD wanted a collaborative process, so they partnered with the Louisville Water Company and Louisville Urban League in order to develop a set of inclusive hiring practices. Minority contractors were invited to discuss their experiences doing work with MSD, and recommend ways to make that process easier. They also discussed recruiting strategies, based on feedback from the contractors. This eventually led to the publication of An Equitable Water Future: Louisville, with the goal of finding “ways to create more economic vitality and career opportunities” while keeping “water safe, affordable, and accessible.” 

The repair and development of water infrastructure is particularly pressing in Louisville, a city that is increasingly experiencing mass flooding and heavy rains. Sewer systems and flood pumping stations are in dire need of upgrades, with over half of the city’s pump stations operating beyond their designed lifespan. Coupled with rapid building and development in Louisville, local utilities are making “considerable investments in water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure,” which means even more job openings in the field. Strengthening local workforce development means that traditionally vulnerable or excluded communities can access the water infrastructure job boom.

Increasing supplier diversity and mitigating community hardships are top priorities, and the Equitable Water Future report outlines several methods for doing so. The Community Benefits Policy (CBP) applies to all construction related services and professional service contracts. The policy requires MSD vendors provide employment opportunities, contracts, education opportunities, and community improvements in the areas impacted by the construction projects. MSD officials also improved the Supplier Diversity Program, with increased in contracting goals for African Americans, Asian-Indian Americans, and women. There is a 10 percent bid discount for minority- and/or woman-owned businesses, as an incentive to help those enterprises compete for prime contracts, and increase access and opportunities for underserved groups in Louisville. 

MSD officials hope this can spur greater changes in city and metro procurement. They encourage other utility agencies to examine their procurement practices and find any equity barriers to contracting with women and/or minority owned businesses. This can mean finding and engaging new businesses, or encouraging existing contracting partners to diversify their hiring. The report writers also identified cross-sector training and certification as a method of increasing diversity, since many of the skills required for trade jobs can transfer across water, transportation, and other infrastructure fields. MSD recommends that the current, siloed training programs collaborate to form more efficient training and certification processes, to open employment opportunities across sectors. 

The work coming out of Louisville’s Equitable Water Future roadmap provides the city with the opportunity to correct for historical practices that obstructed job opportunities for vulnerable members of the community. By expanding the definition of water equity to include workforce development, Louisville is ensuring a resilient future that lifts up all facets of its community.