High Rates, Toxic Water (If You’re Lucky): Organizing for Equity in California’s Central Valley – An Interview With Susana DeAnda
The bottom line is that no human being should have to live in a condition where they have to worry about the tap water being so polluted that their kids can get sick. No family should live in a reality where their kids go to school and they can’t drink the water from the fountains. No Californian should be proud of that story. It’s going to take all of us to change that story.
Our interview with Susana De Anda, co-founder and co-director of the Community Water Center looks at how drought and climate change are exacerbating the historic lack of available, clean water for over a million people who live in California’s Central Valley.
What are some recent examples of precipitating events that have led Central Valley communities to organize around water equity?
The Community Water Center was developed because of a crisis, a water quality crisis that the state of California has had for a long time. Here in the San Joaquin Valley, we have expensive water bills for contaminated, toxic water that can have really detrimental impacts to your health. The State Water Board has a list of 384 small community water systems and schools that have been unable to supply safe drinking water to their communities for several years. Many of these communities with recurring safety violations are in the Central Valley. They’ve had arsenic, nitrates, pesticides, or other contaminants in their water for several years. And it’s important to understand that now, in addition to poor water quality, in addition to unaffordable water rates for toxic water and having to pay twice for water, a lot of our public water systems are also delivering this contaminated, polluted water through old and dilapidated infrastructure.
It’s also really important to note that the governing structures, the water board structures, are also often undemocratic, meaning that they don’t hold meetings when they’re supposed to hold meetings, or they’re not providing adequate translation services so that people can communicate with their local water board. At CWC, we’re building residents’ capacity to engage in decision-making processes about their water future, because we all have better solutions when everyone is supported to be at the decision-making table.
When did not having any water start to become an issue for the communities you work in?
So we’re going into our fourth year of drought. It’s 2015 and I want to make sure that this is very clear – drought has worsened and exacerbated the conditions that many families have been living through for a long time. So water quality didn’t just become an issue now that we have a drought. Take Arvin, a community just outside of Bakersfield, for example. They’ve had arsenic in their water for over a decade.
Obviously, though, climate change is happening, and our low-income communities and communities of color the canary in the coalmine. I would say that it’s not okay to condemn future generations to live in this reality. Just in Tulare County, we have over a thousand household wells that have gone dry. We have families living with no water for over a year and a half. And for these families that have had no water, the way that they’re adjusting to this reality is by having bottled water delivered to their homes. We’re very thankful for the resources that give people that don’t have running water immediate access to water. But it’s not okay to think that bottled water is a permanent solution, and we should not be proud to say that our solution is 2,500-gallon water tanks in front of every person’s home. We need lasting solutions, like consolidating small, neighboring water systems, to build resiliency to this drought and future ones.
The drought affects us very differently depending on where you’re at in the state, and we’re all connected to each other, so actions around water done in the South and the Central Coast all have impacts for everyone. I think we dehumanize this issue like, “Oh, it’s not my issue. I don’t look like them. I don’t live there, it’s not my problem.” Well, guess what? It is your problem. With over a million Californians exposed to unsafe water each year, California has a drinking water crisis that we need to work together to solve.
Obviously this would not be happening in a white middle-class community in California. Solutions would have been found by now. What do you see as being the solutions for these folks in the Central Valley?
Well, first of all, academic studies show that if you live in the Central Valley, and you’re Latino, and low-income, you’re going to have higher chances of having polluted water, and paying high water rates. We’re paying with our health. It’s called discrimination.
I think it comes down to money and power. The deeper wells are being drilled by people that have money. And they’re going deeper into our aquifers to sustain their need for water. Now, if you fly over the Central Valley, you’re not going to see the drought. Everything here looks pretty green.
Families in the Central Valley sustain the food that’s on your plate. We need to support them. And we need to honor them, and give them the respect that they deserve. And Latinos, we are the new majority. At the end of the day, I think there’s a lot of disrespect. We’re hard-working families. We should not be pitied.
It is not okay to say that we’re waiting in line to get charity. This is not charity. We’re in a drought, and the state and local governments have funding to help us, so we need to make sure that the people that need it the most, have the resources.
We need to put more pressure on state and county officials to make sure that the relief comes immediately. We need to ensure that the drought brings urgency to the drinking water public health issues that have been present in the Valley for years. But on top of that, we need to be working in parallel for long-term sustainable strategies.
During this drought, we need to be thinking about long-term sustainable funding and resources for our communities. It’s clear to us that drilling a new private well is not sustainable. We have to be thinking about how do we regionalize solutions, how do we connect and optimize the resources in our communities so that we can bring in treatment if we have poor water quality. I think sustainability on the ground looks different for different communities. Solutions really have to be bottom up. The local community’s residents, local NGOs, and local political officials really are the ones that need to come to the table to figure out the long-term sustainable solutions.
The bottom line is that no human being should have to live in a condition where they have to worry about the tap water being so polluted that their kids can get sick. No family should live in a reality where their kids go to school and they can’t drink the water from the fountains. No Californian should be proud of that story. It’s going to take all of us to change that story. And I want to stand in line with people that want to help because it’s going to take all of us to understand that reality, and not to feel pity for it, but to feel inspired to do better.
Where do you see your water and climate change work going over the next five to ten years?
Now, moving forward, the Community Water Center is part of a collaborative called, “San Joaquin Valley Sustainable Agriculture and Building Power Collaborative.” And that collaborative is tasked with thinking about, “What is sustainable agriculture from the Valley, for the Valley?” “What does that mean for the next couple of years?” “How do we make sure that we understand the nexus with climate change?”
But then you talk to farmworkers about no water, poor water quality, and increased water rates – now we’re talking about the impact. It’s all in the way we discuss climate change. Once we understand the impacts, then we can work on a collective vision for what we want sustainable agriculture to look like in the Valley. And then we can get to the solutions, right?
Susana De Anda co-founded and co-directs the Community Water Center, which is a nonprofit environmental justice organization that acts as a catalyst for community-driven water solutions through organizing, education, and advocacy in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Susana is a seasoned community organizer and has received numerous awards and recognitions for her leadership in the water justice movement. Susana’s experience includes planning and organizing positions at the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment; the County of Merced Planning Department; the Santa Barbara County Water Agency; and the Santa Barbara non-profit Community Environmental Council. Susana earned a B.A. from the University of California, Santa Barbara while completing a double major in Environmental Studies and Geography. Susana previously served on the Community Funding Board of the Grassroots Fund through the Rose Foundation for Communities and the Environment, and she now serves on the Tulare County Water Commission and the Tulare County United Way Board of Directors.
Photo Credit: Community Water Center.org