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Hot Geography – Climate Change & Water – An Interview with John Capitman, Jonathan Nelson and Laura Feinstein

California’s Central Valley is one of the most unequal and segregated places in the United States. That fact has everything to do with how the impacts of global warming and water crises play out.”
~ Dr. John Capitman, Central Valley Health Policy Institute, Fresno State

In this interview, we talked with three experts who think a lot about how to address this increasingly scary intersection of our health, our water and a rapidly warming climate. They, like the other smart and determined participants in Carpe Diem West’s leadership network know that together Si, se Puede!

Dr. John Capitman
Executive Director, Central Valley Healthy  Policy Institute & Nickerson Professor of Public Health, California State University

Jonathan Nelson
Policy Director, Community Water Center

Laura Feinstein
Senior Research Associate, Pacific Institute

Local impacts and response to the drought in California’s San Joaquin Valley
Jonathan Nelson, Community Water Center

All of our work at the Community Water Center can be boiled down to the pursuit of access to safe, clean and affordable drinking water as a human right. Sadly, we know that right here in California, that human right is not being met. As but one example, I’ll share a case study from East Porterville, a community hit hard by the drought.

The story of East Porterville is really a microcosm for what we saw happening across California’s Central Valley over the last few years. East Porterville is a low-income, predominantly Latino community that until recently, did not have a centralized water system. That means everyone in the community relied on shallow, private domestic wells for their drinking water supply. As the water table fell during the drought – because of over-pumping and deeper wells being drilled by agricultural interests – eventually the groundwater level dropped to the point where it was below the reach of domestic wells.

By summer of 2014, thousands of residents in East Porterville were experiencing complete household water loss because their domestic wells had run dry. After volunteer-led efforts and community advocacy, eventually interim solutions were put in place, including bottled water deliveries and water tanks filled up by a water truck every other week. Still, it took months for even these interim solutions to get put in place, and ultimately, some residents waited three years before getting reliable water again by connecting to the City of Porterville. It is really mind-blowing to think that in California, in the 21st century, we could have an entire community that was without reliable drinking water for such a sustained period of time.

During the height of the drought, we worked with residents to form East Porterville For Water Justice, a community-based organization that advocates for safe and affordable water and engages with local, regional, and state officials to ensure progress. Thanks to their advocacy, the community now has a lasting water solution.

By working alongside community residents, we have made great progress at the local, regional, and state levels toward achieving the promise of the human right to water. But we still have a long way to go.

What advice would you give to other water justice leaders facing similar challenges?

  1. The best solutions come through community-driven advocacy, so it’s crucial to engage community members to assess and advance solutions.
  2. We have to proactively plan for a drought. We cannot keep lurching from crisis to crisis.
  3. We have to better manage our groundwater to prevent avoidable emergencies like this.
  4. We have to understand the kaleidoscope of health and social challenges in water-stressed communities.

Community health and water crises
Dr. John Capitman, Central Valley Health Policy Institute, Fresno State

Water is one among several indicators of health disadvantage; there is close correlation between water impacts and already-stressed communities. What the data shows us is that in most water impaired communities residents are also facing greater risks from almost every key environmental measure.
Here in the Central Valley we have higher rates of premature mortality, greater hospital use, and higher levels of premature death compared to the rest of California. The zip codes that are most impacted by these factors are those with greatest poverty and those with larger proportions of Latinos and there’s as much as a 21-year difference in life expectancies for zip codes that are less than 10 miles apart.

From a public health context, it’s the little children, moms, elders and persons with disabilities, that are the miner’s canaries – the first to hurt in the face of a rapidly warming climate.

We can’t solve problems in these towns without dealing with racism and classism.

It’s been very challenging for local organization building, policy work in Fresno and throughout the Valley. Too many of us focus on policy using this individual responsibility and freedom frame – i.e. people are responsible entirely for their own health outcomes, and policy should in no way limit corporate or financial, economic choice.

That really contrasts with the emerging social determinants of health perspective that has been adopted, at least in theory, by California in our state’s health and climate change policy making. It’s the idea that historical conditions and current policies determine the health opportunities for communities.

Current cumulative exposures to bad living conditions, little access to resources, and less civic voice for the people who grow up in these neighborhoods with historical inequities results in inequalities by race and gender and class and age. In turn this results in poor health behaviors, low healthcare utilization and access, and reduced overall rates of survival.

What advice would you give to water justice leaders in other places?

1. We need to think about a multi-pronged strategy, a strategy at the state, federal and local level. This includes mobilizing communities to take power over the policies and systems that impact their survival. We want that framework to use something like the environmental justice frame, the notion that communities deserve and are entitled to both their burdens of pollution, and fair voice in shaping their lives.

  1. We need to engage the existing institutions and the existing structures in making sure that any potential short-term remediation is, in fact, implemented, that we give quality services as taxpayers and members of the community.
  2. We need to fight very specifically to support and protect the federal EPA programs, and to strengthen state, clean water, regulatory and financing initiatives.

The short-term fights really do matter, as well as these long-term efforts to create sustainability.

Drought and Equity in California
Dr. Laura Feinstein, Pacific Institute

The recent Drought and Equity in California report looks at a number of ways that the drought impacted different groups in California.

We took a look at which public water systems were reporting some kind of supply problem, either a current supply problem, or an impending one. We found that the number of public water systems reporting that they were concerned about their ability to deliver sufficient water to their customers was concentrated — no surprise – in the San Joaquin Valley.

When there’s relatively little surface water in the state, particularly in California’s Central Valley, people rely more heavily then on groundwater. In the dry periods, there’s severe over-drafting of California and Central Valley’s aquifers so in these past few years aquifers were severely depleted.

So where do people get their water? This is how I feel most people think about water: It rains, and then for some reason water comes out of your tap. My point here is that the delivery of water to people’s homes is really pretty complex, and it’s decentralized. There’s a wide array of different types of systems that are responsible for delivering water to people’s homes. There’s a huge range of variation in public water systems, and then even beyond that, there’s nonpublic water systems, which are typically wells, or sometimes a diversion from a stream, that are just serving one or a handful of homes. These are very lightly regulated, are largely left to function on their own.

The public water systems that are facing the most challenges in delivering water are also serving the communities that have the fewest resources to deal with those shortages.

An important point here is that while the problems are concentrated in the San Joaquin Valley, we found that they weren’t isolated to that area. We need to be thinking solutions going forward need to address the statewide problem.

Some of the key recommendations from the report:

  • We need some kind of systematic way of tracking supply reliability problems that parallels the current statewide tracking of water quality problems.
  • We need to systematically collect information on water shortages for public and nonpublic water systems. We know very little about why systems ran out of water and very little about whether those problems were addressed in any kind of long term fashion.
  • Currently, only the large urban water systems are required to have a water shortage contingency plan We recommended that all public water systems have a water shortage contingency plan in place, and that there be regional plans put in place for the nonpublic systems with those very tiny systems.
  • Do predictive modeling, looking at, for example, where ground water aquifers are being drawn down near, close to the point where domestic water wells are pulling from, and with that, you could do a prediction about the areas that are likely to be the next East Porterville in the next drought.
  • We advocate for increased oversight of new private wells to evaluate their impact on nearby wells, and to identify where water consolidation.

What advice would you give to people working on these issues?

As an individual, there are many networks that you can support such as the Community Water Center. As an individual, contact your water utility and your elected representative and tell them to support the human right to water statewide. If you work for a corporation, the California Water Action Collaborative and the CEO Water Mandate are networks of corporations working on these issues.


John Capitman, Ph.D., is the Executive Director of the Central Valley Health Policy Institute and Nickerson Professor of Public Health at California State University Fresno. Capitman leads Institute activities in applied health research, policy analysis, technical assistance, and education. Dr. Capitman has served as PI and Co-PI on numerous federal, state and foundation service and research projects. He has an extensive track record of publications in the peer-reviewed health services research and policy journals.  His current research focuses on how social, economic, and environmental factors influence population health in the San Joaquin Valley and increasing the capacity of local organizations to address these factors. Capitman also co-facilitates the Health Policy Leadership Program and teaches about rural health and health disparities. Capitman also serves on the Governing Board of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. 

Jonathan Nelson joined the Community Water Center in 2016 as Policy Director. Jonathan previously held positions at the California Society of Health-System Pharmacists, where he managed government affairs and represented the industry, and at two government affairs firms, Weideman Group and Wada Government Relations, where he represented multiple clients in the environmental, technology and healthcare industries. Outside his professional career, Jonathan serves as a Board Member for Stanford Youth Solutions, a Sacramento-based nonprofit focused on providing foster care services to the public, and is involved with statewide foster care reform efforts. 

Laura Feinstein joined the Water Program at the Pacific Institute in 2016. Laura conducts research on aquatic ecosystems; the impacts of climate change on water resources, water, and energy; and environmental health and justice. Prior to joining the Pacific Institute, she was a research scientist and project manager with the California Council on Science and Technology. She also served as a Science and Technology Policy Fellow with the California Senate Committee on Environmental Quality and was a California SeaGrant Delta Science Fellow. 


Photo Credit: YosemiteMan


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