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Ground Zero in a Rapidly Warming West – An interview with Susana De Anda

DeAnda SQ

All water policies need to be bottom-up if they’re going to be sustainable and impactful. Making smart policies has to go hand-in-hand with organizing and education.

We spoke with Susana De Anda about the interconnected crises of western water, climate change and public health now facing much of the American West, and how water solutions in the time of climate change require integrated, community-based solutions, not huge, expensive new infrastructure.


Congratulations on 10 years of making change on water in California’s Central Valley and beyond! As you look back over those years, what are you most proud of?

I feel very blessed to do the work we do and to be sustainable at 10 years. Things feel right and I feel excited about the continuation of building a movement and working with impacted communities to be integrated into all of our strategies. All that goes back to our mission: we’re a catalyst, we try to be a spark to create community driven water solutions. Our strategies have worked in that we continue to organize, advocate and educate to bring about change. I also feel so blessed to work with an amazing team of passionate, intelligent people who understand that social justice is at the forefront of any conversation about water.

What challenges remain, and how are you tackling them?

We’re 10 years strong, but we’re also using that as catalyst to do the big work that must continue. For us it’s all about community power, and getting impacted residents to be engaged in the work for safe, clean, affordable drinking water. We are still working so hard to help build resilient drinking water institutions that have the resources to provide this basic human right to water. A lot of this is about resources, and that means creating funding programs that make clean water a reality in the many communities where currently there isn’t drinkable water.

That funding has to be timely, adequate, and supported by institutions that have the information they need to make good decisions. It’s not just science and engineering and pipes. It’s all that and a lot more – most importantly adequate resources for impacted communities.

Beyond that, as someone who believes in clean water as a basic right, not a privilege, I recognize that it does take everyone working together to make that a reality. It’s only together that we can identify resources and identify solutions that work. If they’re not there, we need to work together to create them so that water providers have the tools they need to provide clean water.

So we are really honored to work with folks like Carpe Diem West in the struggle. It takes groups like Carpe Diem West and other allies to work collaboratively and to amplify this work. It takes all of us to ensure that basic necessities are met, and that we have resilient communities and healthy bodies. Water is fundamental to that.

The public conversation about water justice and water access has really changed in the wake of the Flint disaster, the California drought, and other unfolding crises. Is there opportunity there as well as tragedy?

Laurel Firestone (CWC Co-director) and I formed Community Water Center when we were working on a campaign, and we realized one campaign wasn’t adequate. So the drought, Flint, contamination across the country – these have all have been avenues to amplify the reality we live in: everyone needs to understand their drinking water quality, and that, as humans, we need that basic resource to survive. Everyone who drinks water needs to be an ally and a concerned resident.

And as the disasters continue, we can turn them into something positive. In the drought things have gotten really bad, but it’s also a chance to amplify the solutions. So that means adequate resources for emergency needs, but also being able to pivot to sustainable long-term solutions. That means optimizing systems and consolidation of the smaller systems – lots of different kinds of solutions we’ve needed for a long time. Because these things have major implications in people’s lives, where people are living with terrible water or no water at all, in their homes and schools and communities.

So the more people learn and hold leaders accountable to address these issues, the more the country moves forward. The human right to water legislation that passed in California last year was very symbolic. It was important. And it was the first in the country. But we have failed because the fact is that so many people still don’t have access to clean water. We must use the current situation to amplify that that need, and the solutions that needed, are within reach.

If you could wave a magic wand and make one big change in California water policy, what would it be?

All policies need to be bottom-up if they’re going to be sustainable and impactful. If any policy is identified on the ground, it’s more likely to be implemented the right way. So making smart policies has to go hand-in-hand with organizing and education. It needs to be integrated. A big one for us, that reflects community needs and desires, is an adequate funding mechanism for these water systems to be able to provide healthy safe drinking water. That means prioritizing water for basic necessities first and protecting our sources of water, including preventing continued degradation of watersheds and groundwater. Today there are still so many people without access to running water. The policies we reach for must reflect that need and be holistic and realistic in meeting that need.

In the next couple of years we must help ensure that, at the local level, water boards have adequate resources, a network of support, and a deeper understanding of who they really represent, so they can make better decisions.

Susana De Anda is a Co-Executive Director and Co-founded of the Community Water Center. Susana is a seasoned community organizer and has received numerous awards and recognitions, including The White House Champion of Change for Climate Equity (2016). 

Photo Credit: KALW public radio, San Francisco

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