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Are California communities running out of water – or democracy? An Interview with Charlotte Weiner

The public water boards in California’s southern San Joaquin Valley are only nominally public. In the last four years, a stunning 87% of those seats were uncontested – so often that three-quarters of the boards didn’t even bother to hold elections.

And that matters, a lot. Because undemocratic, unaccountable water governance is a huge driver behind the Valley’s water contamination crisis. These boards manage delivery of often-contaminated drinking water to residents and agriculture. They fund investments in pumps and pipes, set water rates and collect fees, and in some cases manage groundwater consumption. And generally, they’re not doing any of this in a way that serves their communities. As a result, a million or more Californians, most of them living in poor farmworker communities, can’t safely drink the water that comes out of their taps.

As you’ll see from the interview in this month’s Confluence, our friends at the Community Water Center, in their work to recruit and train community leaders to run for water board seats, is out to change that.

Local water boards that are truly representative of their communities have the power to apply for state funding to build water treatment plants. They can set fair water rates, and participate in local and regional planning.


What inspired Community Water Center (CWC) to start looking at this issue of the lack of participation on water boards?

In the wealthiest state in the country, more than one million California residents don’t have reliable access to safe, clean, and affordable drinking water. At CWC we believe this fight for water justice must be driven by community members themselves. When we think about the ways in which community members can bring about change, local water boards are absolutely key.

Over a decade of work at CWC, we’ve worked directly with dozens of local water boards in the southern San Joaquin Valley. We’ve seen firsthand how these boards shape the human right to water. But at the same time, we came to understand, anecdotally, that many of the boards were run by board members who had held uncontested seats for years or simply hadn’t held an election for years.

What was really exciting is that there’s actually new research out from the California Civic Engagement Project that took this regional perspective on the issue of demographics, and studied the demographics of the local water boards in the southern San Joaquin Valley for the first time. Their study confirmed what we had come to understand anecdotally – that just 15% of these board members, which primarily serve Central Valley Latino communities, are Latino. And on non-drinking water boards – these are irrigation districts – just 3% of the board members were Latino, and none were Latina.

In many of these communities, these boards are the only democratically elected boards directly accountable to residents, and in some cases, the boards refuse to translate their meetings into Spanish.

With our research, we took a closer look at the boards to study them in a systematic way, and to understand the electoral process that shapes the boards.

What would change if these water boards became more representative of the communities they serve?

An emblematic case here, and a case that really highlights the power that these boards hold, and that they can hold if they’re truly representative, is in the community of West Goshen, which is a small community just outside of the City of Visalia, in Tulare County in the southern San Joaquin Valley.

For years the West Goshen water board, which is the sole governing body, and exclusively accountable to the residents of this community – was essentially run by a single family who held seats that were uncontested year after year. The board was wholly unaccountable and ineffective. Residents were paying bills each month for carcinogenic water; their water was contaminated with nitrates.

Then a few years ago, on top of all of this, community members learned that the board was actually planning to raise water rates from $28 a month to over $100 a month. Community members were expected to pay over $100 a month to the board, which was serving them toxic water. So, a community member named Lucy Hernandez, who’s worked with the Community Water Center for years, stepped up. She lives in West Goshen, and she decided that enough was enough, and she decided to run for the board herself. She forced the board to hold an election and she ran for a seat. They held the election, and she became President of the board!

Under Lucy’s incredible leadership, the board secured state funding, and have actually consolidated their water system with the City of Visalia. Now, the community no longer has nitrates in their water system.

Local water boards that are truly representative of their communities can be really attuned to the needs of the community, and they have the power to apply for state funding to build water treatment plants. They can set fair water rates, and participate in local and regional planning.

What do you think is the opportunity to scale up this work? To accelerate this resilient and sustainable just water supply?

Lucy is one incredible person. That was one seat on a board that became contested, and she transformed water access in her community. There are 491 currently uncontested local water board seats in these four counties. These seats have gone uncontested for years, either because these seats open up and no one runs, or no one runs against the incumbent.

It was so exciting in this research to understand for the first time the scope of the opportunity for change here. For a long time, we understood that many boards fundamentally weren’t accountable to the residents they served. That maybe there was an opportunity if folks started running for the boards and uncontested seats that we could really transform what these boards look like.

The boards that we studied, which were just in four counties in the southern San Joaquin Valley, in the heart of California, these boards serve water to hundreds of thousands of residents. Over 47,000 residents are currently served non-compliant water, just by the boards that we studied. And, we found looking at those 565 seats, in these 4 counties, that there are nearly 500 uncontested local water board seats.

This work that we’re doing around local water boards is also very much coming hand in hand with the work that we’ve been doing at Community Water Center on the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund, which would be the new sustainable funding source that would support safe drinking water needs.

What can the Carpe Diem West network do to help advance your agenda on this issue?

In addition to sharing the results from our study, an essential first step is for folks to consider ways that they could support their own local water decision makers. Although we studied just these local water boards and Special Districts in the southern San Joaquin, these types of boards operate not just in California but also throughout the West and they shape water access and water management at the local level.

Charlotte is a fellow at Community Water Center, a nationally-recognized water justice organization that acts as catalyst for community-driven water solutions through organizing, education, and advocacy. 

In her fellowship year at CWC, Charlotte conducted research and authored a report uncontested elections in local water boards the southern San Joaquin Valley. Charlotte graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Yale University in 2017 with distinction in the Ethics, Politics, and Economics major. In the summer of 2016, she reported on water access in unincorporated communities in Tulare and Fresno counties with the support of Yale University summer journalism fellowships. Her senior thesis – on the intersection of wealth, water access, and place-based inequality in the Central Valley – won the George Hume Senior Essay Prize, awarded to the thesis in Ethics, Politics, and Economics that best investigates both the normative and empirical components of public issues. 

Charlotte’s fellowship year at Community Water Center is supported by the Gordon Grand Fellowship, awarded to a Yale University graduating senior whose “proven character and personal capacity to contribute to the lives of others” positions them for “leadership in the world of business or public affairs.”

Photo Credit: Community Water Center

July, 2018

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