The AI Interview: Radhika Fox, CEO of the U.S. Water Alliance

Executive shares her insight on the impact of our water infrastructure in today’s society

American Infrastructure: Could you tell the American Infrastructure Magazine readers about yourself and explain what the U.S. Water Alliance does?

Radhika Fox: For the past 20 years, I’ve dedicated myself to utilizing infrastructure to build communities of opportunity. I’ve worked broadly on transportation, housing, and broadband.

For the last five years, I’ve had the honor to lead the U.S. Water Alliance, a national network that unites diverse interests to advance common ground solutions to our nation’s most pressing water challenges. We organize our work around the One Water approach—a holistic, systems-thinking approach that envisions management of water on a watershed-scale. Our members are utilities, private companies, community organizations, environmental groups, unions, and educational institutions all working towards this goal.

AI: What are the most important, current projects of US Water Alliance?

RF: Like many organizations, the U.S. Water Alliance has been looking at how we rise to the challenge of COVID-19. We are using our national collaboration platform to unite diverse water stakeholders around a common set of principles for relief and recovery that include ideas like ensuring water service is reliable and affordable for everyone, encouraging financial relief for utilities of all sizes, closing the gap in water access, and stimulating the economy through investment in our water infrastructure.

At this moment of deep disruption, there is also an opportunity to rethink the system of water management and envision a new path forward. We want the water sector to recover stronger. And as the national conversation on systemic racism rises, we know it is time to confront institutional racism in our water systems. We’re very excited to be launching the Water Equity Network. Initially, we convened seven cities for two years to learn together and craft plans and implement programs to address water equity challenges like affordability and workforce inclusion. The Water Equity Network will take the lessons from the original seven cities and spread it to dozens of water systems around the country.

AI: Could you talk about the value of water during the pandemic? What would you recommend to water infrastructure professionals to ensure safety?

RF: The global pandemic has made it clear that there is no public health without clean water for all. Clean, affordable, and accessible water service is fundamental to public health and thriving communities. Water is a key component of the healthcare industry, and hygiene practices like handwashing are critical personal tools in staying safe. We certainly applaud the water utilities who stepped up, at financial cost to themselves, to declare a moratorium on shut offs during COVID-19, because it is impossible to be safe if you are living without water.

It is also an important reminder that millions of people in this country live without basic water access. As a result, they haul water or have it delivered, use public taps, or drink directly from streams to meet their basic needs. This disproportionately affects communities of color, with Native American households 19 times more likely than white households to lack indoor plumbing.

 AI: In your opinion, what are the most pressing water infrastructure needs right now? What is the Alliance doing to help fulfill these needs?

RF: We need two things. First, state and federal assistance should be provided to families to help pay water bills and to water utilities to offset the economic losses associated with free or below-cost service provision during the crisis.

Second, water utilities need relief. Water utilities are predicting a national loss of nearly $30 billion from ongoing emergency operations with reduced staff, decreased demand as industries and institutions are shuttered, costs to maintain residential service to households unable to pay their bills, and losses related to suspending water service disconnections and increased customer delinquencies. Utilities desperately need federal assistance to cover these costs or risk exacerbating our affordability problem as rates are raised to help make up this deficit.

AI: Is there something you can think of that our nation could do better with when it comes to water treatment? What would you recommend that water infrastructure professionals do/change to improve water infrastructure?

RF: We as water infrastructure professionals have a key role to play in building the public and political will for infrastructure investment. We need to use the COVID-19 crisis to educate people on the role of water in our public health, our environmental health, and our economy to help them understand why it is worth the investment.

AI: Is there anything you would like to share that we forgot/didn’t think of asking? A message you would like to get across to our Infrastructure professional readers?

RF: We know the legislators in Washington, DC will be focusing on economic recovery, and infrastructure will be discussed as a policy issue during congressional and presidential campaigns later this year. In this moment, it is critical that water and wastewater not get lost in the conversation about roads, bridges, transit, and airports. It isn’t about pitting different types of infrastructure against one another, or a perception of fighting over slices of some limited pie. We’re interested in everyone understanding the critical role that water plays in jobs and the economy, just like all infrastructure and transportation investment does. Water is absolutely essential to everything—to public health, to our communities thriving, to a clean environment that we can prosper in together. Without water, we are nothing, so we need to lift it up so it gets the attention it deserves!

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