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Drought, Equity & Fish – An interview with Amanda Ford

This report is important because it serves as a touch point for people to point to and share, that shows the differential impacts across communities, especially communities of color and low-income communities.

February 21, 2017

We spoke with Amanda Ford about the recent report from EJWC and the Pacific Institute, Drought and Equity in California, which provides the first statewide analysis of drought impacts on the state’s most vulnerable populations. It includes a data-base overview, and offers numerous practical suggestions for how utilities can address these significant inequities.

We’ve been really impressed with the Drought and Equity in California report, the first statewide analysis of the impacts of the drought on California’s most vulnerable communities. We were impressed to see that the report provides information community groups can use to advocate for their own interests, and it informs policymakers and other decision-makers interested in crafting more effective drought response strategies, particularly to address the needs of the state’s most vulnerable communities. Tell us why the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water got involved.

We recognized a really important opportunity to get some data out to the public that links the impacts of drought on different communities in different ways, and especially the inequitable burdens placed on certain communities. So of course we all think about drought in California, and it’s in the news every day, and everyone knows we’re experiencing it, and everyone is impacted in some way, even with this month’s downpours. EJCW hears many stories throughout California of job loss, food source loss, unsafe drinking water, and property damage. In my own family, we’ve been touched because a tree fell on our home, and that tree died because of the drought.

But the report is important because it serves as a touchpoint for people to point to and share, that shows the differential impacts across communities, especially communities of color and low-income communities.

What are the most important takeaways from this report?

The report looks at three dimensions of drought impacts: supply, affordability and the impact on fishing communities, specifically Tribes. Now because of Standing Rock, the media is thinking more of tribes, but we wanted to focus on California tribes who depend on fishing. This isn’t just about drinking water but also about economies, livelihoods, and culture.

We are looking for the state to make water more affordable, and to create and implement (under California AB 401) good policy for people who can’t afford water to get it. And given the new federal administration, whatever solutions the state comes up with must address the needs of the community, and must take into account the dramatic increase in fear of the government. For example, people are afraid to report the numbers of people in their house, and yet we need to make water available to everyone regardless of that fear.

We also want human consumption to be prioritized over corporate and big agriculture’s uses of water. Yes water is food, and yes we need to grow food, but so much of the food being grown here isn’t actually feeding Californians and is often wastefully grown from a water perspective. So we are advocating water for people first. Part of that is coming hard at polluters and make sure they’re being held accountable because they are contaminating the dwindling resources still available.

Finally, the last recommendation is looking at fishing communities in a different way. The impacts of drought are economic in those communities, and if we’re looking at farms and prioritizing the farming economy, we also have to look at the economy of fishing. Fish runs disappearing are causing cultural deficits and economic harms, and these wraparound impacts in communities mean we are seeing a disconnect from traditional diets which, in some tribal communities, is leading to higher rates of suicide and mental illness. Those are linked to the absence of fish and a disconnect from culture, and they’re tragic, and they’re also very expensive. So the state will end up paying more for services that can be met with fish. That’s a different way of seeing it for many Western-thinking minds. But it’s important. One way to make that actionable is to have the state value Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) as much as they do other types of data. The tribes have been caretakers of these lands for thousands of years, and they understand the connections in ways that we don’t. We want that valued and not discredited. We want the tribes to be at the table for every major decision that affects their sovereign status, their water, and the fish that form the basis for their cultures and livelihoods.

What are the next steps for California (and other western) water utilities as they think about the differential impacts of drought?

We need utilities to continue to be aware that we’re still in a drought, and the impacts of that drought are differential. So the communities mentioned in the report – vulnerable communities and disadvantaged communities – need to be engaged in a thoughtful and intentional way that meets their needs. Those needs include schedule, language, childcare, and accessibility. We have seen utilities say they held an outreach meeting and no one came. But the meeting was held at 10am, only in English, with no childcare. That’s not accessible.

For us, the lesson here is that if utilities take the resources and time to plan and invest in public outreach, it will save them money in the end. And conversely if they don’t, it will cost more. This is the beginning of working with environmental justice issues to shift the paradigm, and start to actually undo the racism that’s in place in many of our water systems. We at EJCW are saying that kind of implicit, very damaging racism has to be dismantled – and the drought can help us see the urgency there. It can’t be the same old, same old.Amanda Ford is the Coalition Coordinator for The Environmental Justice Coalition for Water (EJCW).

Amanda coordinates EJCW’s efforts to develop and implement programs and advocacy campaigns at a statewide level, including implementation of the Human Right to Water (AB 685), pollution prevention, democratic water governance, climate adaptation, and more.



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