Sustainable LA Grand Challenge Research Spotlight: Greg Pierce

October 20, 2020

In 2012, California became the first state to legally recognize the human right to water, requiring that all Californians have access to “safe, clean, affordable and accessible water.” We spoke with Greg Pierce, associate director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation and adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Urban Planning, about his research and the inequalities faced by Los Angeles communities when it comes to this basic human right.

Greg Pierce. Photo Source: UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation

Q: How would you describe your research?

“Broadly, it focuses on household access to what I call basic environmental services, which are primarily access to drinking water and sewage utilities and secondarily, energy utility and transportation services. Much of it relates to the human right to water, both at the state level and particularly in Los Angeles.”

Q: How did you become interested in water? 

“I did undergraduate work in economics and history, and realized near the end of it, that I wanted to do something broadly to help people. I found the issue of global water access­—the lack of safe, clean water in other countries—to be a really tangible issue where I could make a difference. 

I was initially focused on global issues, and did work in Latin America and South Asia throughout my dissertation. During the last one or two years of my Ph.D., I became more and more drawn toward asking the same types of questions and working on the same sorts of issues with a local focus.” 

Q: What are the challenges facing the Los Angeles region when it comes to our drinking water? 

“Besides the large challenge of moving the region away from imported water toward local water, there are severe human right to water issues in L.A. County. In some ways, access to ‘clean, safe, affordable and accessible’ water in L.A. is better than in rural parts of the state. At the same time—like much of the U.S.—we have a very fragmented governance of drinking water. We have over 200 drinking water systems, and each one serves different customers. 

Affordability is a huge issue. Water has been historically underpriced. Now, there is pressure to raise prices rapidly to reflect the true value of water. The general price of water just keeps rising above the pace of inflation. So now, there’s a big concern over the ability of low-income households being able to pay for water. 

There are also inequities in the amounts that households pay for the same amount of water. Depending on whether you live on one street versus another, we’ve seen differences up to five times the cost for the same amount of water from different utility systems. 

Even in L.A. County, we also have quite a few smaller drinking water systems that are repeatedly violating federal and state primary standards for drinking water related to health. 

Finally, we have some communities where people don’t trust the tap water, but the water is not violating primary health standards. If you dig into a lot of these cases— especially in disadvantaged, majority communities of color—and you talk to people and see their water, you see that there are issues of taste, smell and color that rationally lead people to mistrust it. It’s probably an issue with the plumbing in their house or another local infrastructure problem. We do a lot of work with local water systems, the county and community groups to resolve those issues.”

Q: What impacts on policy would you like your research to have?

“A lot of our work is done directly with policy makers. For example, over the last five years we worked with the state to develop a statewide affordability assistance program. It would be the first statewide affordability program in the U.S. and would help solve some of these issues. That work and report was delivered to the state legislature for action right before COVID hit, and state action is on pause for now, but we hope that it will be back on the table next year.

Q: What do you see as the biggest barrier to a sustainable L.A.?

“How historical inequities and legal property rights around resources—particularly water and land—continue to serve as obstacles for ways of reimagining infrastructure, governance and equitably distributing resources. The government, nonprofits and even the private sector in many ways are motivated toward achieving sustainability. But there are still too many inequitable rights and arrangements that are underlying the current system.

We’ve achieved a lot of progress, but there haven’t been as many transformational shifts around who gets access to resources, and who benefits from infrastructure. I think that it’s still reflective of archaic and inequitable legal systems.” 

Read more about Pierce and the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation’s research on water.