History of Pacific Institute Work on Sustainability Equity and Justice 1987 – 2022 

Peter H. Gleick, Jason Morrison, Shannon McNeeley, Heather Cooley, and Michael Cohen 

The Pacific Institute has more than 30 years of commitment to environmental and social justice issues, from the founding days when issues of economic development and poverty were defined as core to the organization’s mission. The Pacific Institute has studied and published on issues of human rights, community engagement, inequitable development, and poverty; created, supported, and spun off new groups focusing on environmental justice; and advanced the cause of equitable sustainable development locally and internationally.  

The Pacific Institute’s first Executive Director, Nancy Levin, was hired in 1990 as a leader in the LGBTQ community, bringing a focus on gender issues to the environmental field and to the Institute. During the 1990s, the Pacific Institute collaborated with the new post-apartheid government in South Africa on the human right to water, and with Palestinians, Jordanians, and Israelis on water sharing. In 1995, the Pacific Institute created the Community Strategies for Sustainability Justice Program (CSSJ), with Santos Gomez and Penn Loh as initial co-directors. The program produced a long series of research projects, reports, meetings, and collaborations with a wide range of environmental justice organizations, including the Latino Issues Forum, West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, Greenlining Institute, West County Toxics Coalition, United Indian Nations, Urban Habitat, People United for a Better Oakland, and many others. In 1997, the Pacific Institute convened the first-ever regional meetings with environmental justice leaders on CALFED Bay-Delta water issues. During the early 2000s, the Pacific Institute’s work with residents and community groups in West Oakland led to the closing of Red Star Yeast, the city’s largest fixed source of toxic air pollution, and the Pacific Institute helped found and spin off the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water. In 2008, the Pacific Institute won the “Business Network Ethics Award” (BENNY Award) in support of our work on human rights and water with community and legal groups in South Africa. During more recent years, the Pacific Institute published a series of reports on water and equity, the human right to water, the disproportionate impacts of the COVID pandemic, and how water shortages and droughts affect disadvantaged and cumulatively burdened communities. The Pacific Institute compiled and released the first data showing how many Californians lack safe water and sanitation in 2019 and established its long-term Water and Climate Equity strategy in 2022.  

The timeline below provides some key highlights of the Pacific Institute’s history of work on sustainability equity and justice from its founding in 1987 to the July 2022 launch of its new Water and Climate Equity focus area.  



  • The Pacific Institute is founded by Peter Gleick, Michael Maniates, Ronnie Lipschutz, and Gail Kimmel with a clear call to address the issues of inequality and unsustainable development. Research in the first few years focuses on water and security, climate change, and sustainable economic development.  


  • The Pacific Institute holds a Sustainable Resource Workshop with UC Berkeley and the Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research (Sweden) addressing issues of equity and justice. 
  • The Pacific Institute hires its first Executive Director, Nancy Levin. 


  • The Institute evaluates issues associated with racial and environmental inequalities in South Africa and links those issue to social unrest and instability in a publication by Anne Schonfield, “Securing the Future: Environmental Issues as a Priority in South Africa.” 
  • The Pacific Institute’s new Research, Activism, and Public Awareness Program launches collaborative efforts between research and activist groups on global and local issues, such as free trade with Mexico, and begins a collaboration with Pablo Gutman, a leading Latin American specialist on environmental initiatives and sustainable development. 


  • A collaborative project is set up between the Pacific Institute and Dr. Ogunlade Davidson of Sierra Leone to encourage socially and environmentally appropriate energy development in Africa with a network of institutions and individuals. 
  • The Pacific Institute provides initial institutional support for a project on community forestry management in India, facilitated by local NGOs, to become protectors and managers of public forest lands, rehabilitate India’s degraded forests, and increase equitable distribution of forest products and benefits. 
  • Peter Gleick helps negotiate an unprecedented joint declaration between Palestinians and Israelis at the First International Israeli-Palestinian Academic Conference on Water, in Zurich. 


  • Senior Associate Sharachchandra Lele expands the Pacific Institute’s work on community use of forests, water, and land in India, including working with local tribal communities in southern India on sustainable extraction of forest products. Institute publishes “Sustainability: A Plural, Multi-dimensional Approach.”  
  • The Pacific Institute co-sponsors a lecture and discussion with Humaira Islam, leader of Bangladesh’s first coalition of groups working to empower urban slum dwellers through micro-enterprise lending. 


  • Attorney Santos Gomez joins as Pacific Institute research associate with expertise in water, international trade, US/Mexico environmental issues, and water marketing. 


  • The Pacific Institute formally launches the Community Strategies for Sustainability Justice Program (CSSJ). Santos Gomez and Penn Loh serve as co-directors. Initial projects include Water Transfers and Sustainable Development; Latinos and Sustainable Development; and Telecommunication Services for the Poor. All three are collaborative efforts with existing environmental justice and multi-ethnic organizations, including the Latino Issues Forum, Greenlining Institute, and others. 
  • Pacific Institute staff Penn Loh and Jamal Gore write the background paper for a major conference “California Today: Facing the Challenges of the 21st Century – Environmental Justice, Population, and the New Majority of Color.” 
  • Penn Loh addresses the relationship between population, social justice, and the environment in a new publication for the President’s Council on Sustainable Development, “Sustainability and Justice: By Whom for Whom?” with Urban Habitat. In this paper, he writes: “Sustainability is not just about preservation of biodiversity and wilderness or management of natural resources… Sustainability is a social problem that demands analysis of the political and economic systems that connect people to one another and ultimately to the Earth.”  “Sustainability is too important to be left to scientists or technocrats. A genuine science for the people needs to be pursued within a democratic politics. Only then will sustainability with justice be achieved.” 
  • Santos Gomez presents “Disaster Policy: Implications for People of Color and the Poor,” at a conference “Changing California: Exploring New Challenges for Race and Race Relations.” He also participates in the Chicano/Latino International Convocation, and a workshop on transboundary water resources between the United States, Mexico, and Canada. 
  • The Pacific Institute works with the Sierra Business Council and local communities to develop a set of measures of community well-being in the context of sustainable economies that protect and restore the natural environment. This work is published in 1996 as the “Sierra Nevada Wealth Index.” 


  • The Pacific Institute publishes “Water Transfers in California: A Framework for Sustainability and Justice” (Penn Loh and Santos Gomez). In this paper: “Water reforms are unlikely to support sustainability and equity as long as large segments of the population, especially the poor and people of color, are excluded from the debate…Water reallocation should be guided by a set of principles based on sustainability and justice.” 
  • A Pacific Institute paper, “Basic water requirements for human activities: Meeting basic needs” (Peter H. Gleick)  is published and later used in legal human rights cases in South Africa and by the United Nations in the debate over the human right to water. 
  • Pacific Institute co-hosts a meeting with the Rural Water Impact Network on third-party impacts of water transfers, especially with farmworkers and communities of color in agricultural regions.
  • Santos Gomez briefs the EDGE Agua Es Vida conference in Oakland on the Institute’s work on California water and communities of color. Similar findings are presented at the Latino Issues Forum summit in California. 


  • The Pacific Institute meets with community leaders in Watsonville, California, to discuss work and health priorities and the Institute’s collaborative activities looking at how socioeconomic and labor market changes are affecting the lives of low-income people and communities of color. Three studies on these issues are released. 
  • The Pacific Institute’s CSSJ program publishes “Our Water, Our Future: The Need for New Voices in California Water Policy” (Santos Gomez and Arlene Wong) and “Shared Water, Different Dreams: Managing Urban Water Resources in San Diego and Tijuana” (Santos Gomez). That assessment says: “Water policy has yet to adequately protect water’s social, cultural, and religious importance or serve the broader interests of the public… The interests of poor communities, people of color, and often the broader public have yet to be integrated into water decisions…If California is to embrace principles of sustainability and justice, and manage and use water more sustainably and equitably, these voices must be heard and their concerns addressed.” 
  • The Pacific Institute convenes a series of first-ever regional meetings with environmental justice and ethnic leaders on CALFED Bay-Delta water issues, with a commitment to empowering communities to “make informed decisions, manage their resources, and control their futures.” 


  • The Pacific Institute launches the Water and Environmental Justice Project to increase community participation in water policy and planning. As part of this effort, the Institute convenes and facilitates a dialogue on water and environmental justice issues between Bay Area community grassroots groups and CALFED staff. 
  • Santo Gomez presents the Pacific Institute’s work at the National Hispanic Sustainable Energy and Environment Conference of the National Hispanic Environmental Council. 
  • The Pacific Institute publishes “California Water Transfers: An Evaluation of the Economic Framework and a Spatial Analysis of the Potential Impacts” (Santos Gomez and Anna Steding) including a framework for inclusive and participatory water policy. 
  • The Water and CSSJ programs launch an assessment of effective community programs on sustainable water management and use. The final report, “Sustainable Use of Water: California Success Stories,” (Lisa Owens-Viani, Arlene Wong, Peter Gleick editors) is released in 1999. 
  • The very first volume of “The World’s Water: The Biennial Report on Freshwater Resources” is published, including a discussion of water and equity issues in the context of sustainability and a review of South Africa’s experience on water and equity. 


  • Arlene Wong is appointed CSSJ program director. The CSSJ program launches an assessment of brownfields redevelopment issues and prepares a resource guide with recommendations for improving and promoting community participation.  
  • Pacific Institute staff present background on environmental justice and water efforts, the human right to water, and sustainability issues to the Sierra Club, the 20th Annual Rivers Festival, the 10th International Water Resources Association Congress, the International Workshop on Water Issues, the World Water Forum in the Hague, and many other venues.  
  • Peter Gleick publishes “The Human Right to Water” laying out the legal background and basis for a formal international human right to water. The United Nations declares such a right 11 years later. 
  • The Pacific Institute founds the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water. 
  • The Pacific Institute publishes “Haven or Hazard: The Ecology and Future of the Salton Sea” (Michael Cohen, Jason Morrison, and Ed Glenn), recommending that the needs and expectations of marginalized communities in the region be addressed in the restoration planning process. 


  • The Institute publishes “Brownfields Redevelopment: Meeting the Challenges of Community Participation” (Arlene Wong and Lisa Owens-Viani). 
  • The Pacific Institute co-sponsors a meeting on the implications of CALFED for urban communities, with the Urban Creeks Council, West County Toxic Coalition, Bay Area Urban League, Save the Bay, Clean Water Action, United Indian Nations, UIN Community Development Corporation, Urban Habitat, the San Francisco Foundation, the United Council, and People United for a Better Oakland. 
  • The Pacific Institute launches the first ever online catalog of resources related to water and environmental justice issues. 
  • The Pacific Institute spins off the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water (EJCW) as an independent non-profit. The EJCW is an outgrowth of the Institute’s community outreach and education project and helps coordinate environmental justice workshops to help those traditionally left out of state water-planning efforts. 
  • The Pacific Institute organizes and co-sponsors a workshop in Mexicali, Baja California, Mexico, on “Water Issues in the Colorado River Basin Border Region” with community and environmental groups, Indian tribes, US and Mexican government agencies, and academics. 


  • The CSSJ Program launches the Environmental Indicators Project (EIP), including the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project in collaboration with community leaders, including Ms. Margaret Gordon. 
  • The Pacific Institute’s Economic Globalization Program launches the International NGO Network initiative to bring the voices of the environmental community, including labor and the broader public, into discussions on international environmental standards.  
  • Meena Palaniappan becomes co-director of the Environmental Indicators Project at the Institute. 


  • The Pacific Institute’s Environmental Indicators Project releases “Neighborhood Knowledge for Change addressing environmental conditions in West Oakland and tracking 17 neighborhood indicators of environmental health and well-being. With our community partners, the Institute holds the first “toxic tour” of Oakland. 
  • Peter Gleick founds the “Water Words” project with Jon Lane of WaterAid to provide free libraries of information on water management, protection, and use to schools, libraries, and other institutions in developing countries. The first sets of resources are sent to communities in Malawi, East Timor, Ethiopia, Barbados, and India. 


  • The Pacific Institute’s work with residents and community groups in West Oakland leads to a major success – the closing of Red Star Yeast, the city’s largest fixed source of toxic air pollution. 
  • The Pacific Institute launches the West Oakland Diesel Study to characterize the extent of diesel pollution in the area and identify options to reduce those emissions. Congresswoman Barbara Lee meets with project staff and community groups and pledges support to advocate for community-identified concerns. 
  • A major analysis of water privatization is released: “The New Economy of Water (Peter Gleick, Gary Wolff, Elizabeth Chalecki, Rachel Reyes), addressing public, private, and community-cooperative models of water management. This paper becomes one of the most sought-after Institute studies. 


  • The Pacific Institute launches the West County Indicators Project to develop neighborhood-level indicators of eleven community-identified economic and environmental health and justice issues in West Contra Costa County. This project culminates in the release of a comprehensive bilingual report, “Measuring What Matters,” in June 2009, with findings used by the City of Richmond and Contra Costa County for policy actions related to streetlights, city parks, childhood lead poisoning prevention and youth programs. 


  • The Institute works with the City of Oakland, Alameda County Department of Public Health, US EPA, and the West Oakland Environmental Indicators project to co-sponsor a workshop called “Planning Healthy Cities for the 21st Century,” focused on improving community health in Oakland. 


  • The Pacific Institute wins the 2008 “Business Network Ethics Award” in support of Peter Gleick’s work on human rights and water with community and legal groups in South Africa for the fight to provide water for poor communities in the court case Mazibuko vs. the City of Johannesburg. 


  • Pacific Institute staff and affiliates serve on the Port of Oakland’s Maritime Air Quality Improvement Plan task force, working with a broad cross section of industry, community, labor, and agency stakeholders to identify feasible yet ambitious measures for reducing air pollution from operations at the Port of Oakland. 


  • Pacific Institute advises the Oakland City Council on the environmental health impacts of recycling facilities located in low-income residential communities in West Oakland and analyzes options for relocating these facilities. As a result, the Oakland City Council includes the relocation of these industrial facilities as part of its Request for Proposals for the redevelopment of the Oakland Army Base. 
  • The Pacific Institute’s 2009 study, “The Impacts of Sea Level Rise on the California Coast,” (for the PIER project of the California Energy Commission) maps coastal areas that will be vulnerable to flooding or erosion in coming decades, including a detailed analysis of the affected populations, economics, infrastructure, and ecosystems. This assessment included one of the first environmental justice reviews on the disproportionate impacts of sea-level rise on coastal communities, low-income families, and people of color.  
  • In its capacity as secretariat of the CEO Water Mandate, the Pacific Institute publishes “Water and Human Rights: Exploring the Roles and Responsibilities of Business.” The paper examines how businesses can adhere to John Ruggie’s “corporate responsibility to respect” principle in the context of access to water. 


  • By 2010, the Pacific Institute has created, supported, and spun off three separate independent organizations: the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water, the Ditching Dirty Diesel Collaborative, and West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project. Swati Prakash is Director of the CSSJ Program.   
  • The United Nations, after decades of debate, declares a formal “human right to water and sanitation.” Among the influential documents acknowledged by the United Nations is the 1996 paper on the basic human needs for water by Institute co-founder Peter Gleick. 


  • The Pacific Institute publishes “The Human Costs of Nitrate-Contaminated Drinking Water in the San Joaquin Valley” by Eli Moore, Eyal Matalon, Carolina Balazs, Jennifer Clary, Laurel Firestone, Susan De Anda, and Martha Guzman. This study of the impacts of nitrate contamination emerged out of a partnership with the Pacific Institute, the Community Water Center, Clean Water Fund, and the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation and highlights the threats to disadvantaged communities of failed agricultural practices. 


  • With input from community leaders and advocates of the Oakland Climate Action Coalition and with representatives from federal, state, and regional agencies and community organizations, the Institute publishes “Social Vulnerability to Climate Change in California,” (Heather Cooley, Eli Moore, Matthew Heberger, and Lucy Allen). The study underscores the importance of understanding vulnerability factors and the populations that exhibit these factors as critical for crafting effective and equitable climate change policies and response strategies. 
  • The Pacific Institute partners with the Oakland Climate Action Coalition to publish “Community-Based Climate Adaptation Planning: Case Study of Oakland, California” (Catalina Garzon, Heather Cooley, Matthew Heberger, Eli Moore, Lucy Allen, Eyal Matalon, Anna Doty, and the Oakland Climate Action Coalition). This report examines climate impacts and socio-economic vulnerabilities for the City of Oakland and identifies more than 50 strategies for building community resilience and adapting to climate-change impacts such as extreme heat, flooding, wildfires, poor air quality, and rising food, water, and electricity prices. 
  • Under the banner of the CEO Water Mandate, the Pacific Institute publishes “Bringing a Human Rights Lens to Corporate Water Stewardship.” The report aims to assist large-scale water-using companies by providing useful approaches to, and concrete examples of, what respect for the human right to water and sanitation means in practice. 


  • Catalina Garzon and Eli Moore are co-directors of the Community Strategies for Sustainability and Justice program, with efforts on criminal justice reform, air quality and traffic/ transportation impacts, and climate justice in Oakland, Richmond, and other Bay Area communities. 


  • The Pacific Institute releases a study (“Assessing Water Affordability: A Pilot Study in Two Regions of California”) showing that many households, even within affluent communities, routinely spent over the affordability threshold of two percent of their household income on their water bill. The number of water systems with “unaffordable” rates varied by region and measure used, with important implications for policymakers. The report is a partnership with the Community Water Center and Fresno State University. (Authors: Juliet Christian-Smith, Carolina Balazs, Matthew Heberger, and Karl Longley). 


  • The Pacific Institute publishes “Hazard’s Toll: The Costs of Inaction at the Salton Sea” (Michael Cohen), highlighting the public health and financial inequities of the state’s inaction. 


  • The Pacific Institute refocuses on water issues. Non-water programs of the Community Strategies for Sustainability and Justice program are spun off to community and local control, water-related environmental justice and equity projects are integrated across Institute programs, and research and outreach efforts on environmental justice issues continue in partnership with other organizations. 
  • Under the CEO Water Mandate banner, the Pacific Institute with the human rights NGO Shift, publishes “Guidance for Companies on Respecting the Human Rights to Water & Sanitation.” The best practice guide aims to help businesses effectively align corporate water stewardship practices with the corporate responsibility to respect the human right to water and sanitation. 


  • Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute and Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech address the science and social justice issues of the Flint, Michigan water crisis in an op-ed in the Detroit Free Press. 
  • On World Water Day, in its role as Secretariat of the CEO Water Mandate, the Pacific Institute co-founds WASH4Work, a consortium of a diverse group of stakeholders from the public and private sectors that joined together to mobilize business to improve access to water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in the workplace, in the communities where workers live, and across supply chains. The Pacific Institute remains secretariat of the WASH4Work initiative in 2022. 
  • The Pacific Institute partners with the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water and eight community-based organizations to publish “Drought and Equity in the San Francisco Bay Area” (Heather Cooley, Kristina Donnelly, Salote Soqo, and Colin Bailey) examining equity-related issues around the California drought. 


  • The Pacific Institute publishes “Drought and Equity in California” (Laura Feinstein, Rapichan Phurisamban, Amanda Ford, Christine Tyler, and Ayana Crawford) addressing how severe drought is affecting disadvantaged and cumulatively burdened communities affected by water shortages. This work highlights underlying inequities in how the state’s water resources are managed.  
  • Environmental justice/community-based organizations in the Salton Sea region begin working with the Institute and other NGOs to emphasize community engagement in the state’s newly formed Salton Sea Management Program, to ensure that the needs and expectations of marginalized communities in the region are addressed. 


  • A new assessment is released “Measuring Progress Toward Universal Access to Water and Sanitation in California: Defining Goals, Indicators, and Performance Measures” (Laura Feinstein). In 2012, California’s Human Right to Water was passed but the state has not developed a strategy that would ensure safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water for all citizens. This report identifies concrete, measurable ways to make progress on this need. 
  • The Pacific Institute publishes an assessment by Michael Cohen of the environmental, social, and equity challenges associated with water trading in Volume 9 of “The World’s Water” report – the Pacific Institute’s biannual publication on global water challenges. 


  • The Pacific Institute compiles and releases data showing for the first time how many Californians lack access to safe water and sanitation in “Plumbing the Depths: Californians Without Toilets and Running Water” (Laura Feinstein and Gabriel Daiess). The report proposes policies to address this problem.  
  • Pacific Institute Senior Researcher Sarah Diringer collaborates with the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water (EJCW) to develop a policy brief entitled “Solutions for Access to Sanitation and Hygiene for Individuals Experiencing Homelessness in Alameda County, California,” as part of a Women’s Policy Institute Fellowship.  
  • The Pacific Institute partners with local groups to organize a community forum at the Institute/UC Riverside Salton Sea Summit, amplifying voices and experiences from marginalized communities typically excluded from such conferences.  


  • As part of the Pacific Institute’s work on water and the COVID-19 pandemic, the Institute assesses and publishes data, analysis, and recommendations on racial and economic disparities in water shutoffs and utility disconnections: “Water and the COVID-19 Pandemic: Equity Dimensions of Utility Disconnections in the U.S.” (Lillian Holmes, Morgan Shimabuku, Laura Feinstein, Greg Pierce, Peter H. Gleick, and Sarah Diringer). The report highlights that Black, Native American, and mixed-race households are disproportionately impacted by utility disconnections compared to other races. 
  • The Pacific Institute publishes “Water and the Covid-19 Pandemic: Ensuring Access to Water as Shutoff Moratoriums Lift” as part of our work on equity, justice, water, and public health (Morgan Shimabuku, Sarah Diringer, Laura Feinstein, Peter H. Gleick, Lillian Holmes, Greg Pierce, Gregg Brill, and Hannah Baleta). 
  • The Pacific Institute works with the San Francisco Estuary Partnership to develop a needs assessment for unhoused Bay Area residents as part of the Proposition 1 Disadvantaged Community Involvement Program in California. 


  • The Pacific Institute partners with Rural Community Assistance Corporation and Rural Community Assistance Partnership publish “Customer Debt and Lost Revenue: The Financial Impacts of COVID-19 on Small Community Water Systems,” highlighting the disproportionate effects of the pandemic on disadvantaged communities. 
  • The Pacific Institute hires Dr. Shannon McNeeley to develop a strategy at the intersection of climate change, water, and environmental justice. This included a process of gathering information to understand the current knowledge base and getting input from technical, organizational, and community leaders and experts.  


  • The Pacific Institute launches its Water and Climate Equity strategy with partners Digdeep, Livelihoods Knowledge Exchange Network (LiKEN), and Rural Community Assistance Partnership (RCAP). 
Scroll to Top