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Earl Lui
Program Director

Earl Lui is a program director at The California Wellness Foundation where he currently manages grantmaking related to strengthening community clinics and safety-net partners, and fostering healthy environments.

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The Realities of Water Insecurity in California

Reflections by Cal Wellness Program Director Earl Lui

My son Kyle turns 8 in October. For about half of his life, California has experienced severe drought. Kyle knows that water is a precious resource, and he’s learned how to conserve water at home. He starts his shower routine using a bucket to catch the two gallons or so of cold water that comes out of the shower head before the water turns warm enough for him to get in. Once the bucket fills up, we take it outside to water our plants.

Many Californians, however, face far greater problems with water every day. As many as 2 million Californians may have water that is unsafe to drink, while the drought has caused 2,000 wells supplying drinking water for households to go dry. While the drought has made these issues even more serious, the reality is that many underserved communities in the state have been dealing with these problems for decades.

At The California Wellness Foundation (Cal Wellness), we believe that access to clean and reliable water is a basic human right. But too often, where people live and work, their race or ethnicity, or their income can impact their health and wellness, including their access to water.

The water supplies of many small towns in the Central Valley are contaminated with nitrates from agricultural uses and other chemicals. Taking showers with contaminated water results in skin rashes and irritation. Many families have resorted to buying bottled water for drinking and cooking, which means they pay twice for water — for municipal water systems that they can’t use and for bottled water that they must use. For low-income, farmworker communities, this double burden strains household budgets.

In the Coachella Valley, many low-income workers live in unlicensed mobile home parks with makeshift drinking and waste water systems. These communities suffer from contaminated drinking water and overloaded septic tanks that allow sewage to back up into homes. The powerful documentary film “Thirsty for Justice: The struggle for the human right to water” features the stories of urban and rural California residents suffering from water problems such as these.

To address these problems, Cal Wellness will continue its longtime support of organizations across the state that are partnering with residents of affected communities. For example, Community Water Center in Visalia engages in community organizing, public education and advocacy efforts to ensure the water needs of Central Valley communities are a priority for decision-makers. Environmental Justice Coalition for Water is a policy and advocacy organization working at the state level to advocate for additional funding for improving water infrastructure in underserved communities. Pueblo Unido Community Development Corporation works in the Eastern Coachella Valley to improve water systems and other infrastructures in low-income mobile home parks.

Public policy efforts by these and other organizations in California helped pave the way for enactment of the human right to water bill, AB 685, in 2012. This landmark bill made California the first state in the nation to legislatively recognize that “every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable and accessible water.”

Cal Wellness has supported these types of water justice efforts for many years and will continue to do so under Advancing Wellness. While the drought may end someday, it will undoubtedly take many more years of community organizing and advocacy before sufficient funding is secured to make the human right to water a reality in California.

Earl Lui currently manages Cal Wellness’ grantmaking related to strengthening community clinics and safety-net partners, and fostering healthy environments.

Previously, Lui oversaw the Foundation’s environmental health grantmaking.

More on This Topic:

Community infrastructure and access to essentials such as clean water can affect people’s health and wellness, especially during California’s severe drought. Below are resources related to this issue, including work from Cal Wellness’ past and current grantees.

Websites contains the latest drought news and water conservation tips from news organizations up and down the state of California.

The Los Angeles Times’ California Drought section includes the latest coverage of the drought in the West, including breaking news and special features.

The California Institute for Water Resources integrates California's research and education programs to foster practical, research-based solutions to water-resource challenges. This organization oversees collaborative research and outreach on water issues across California's academic institutions and with international, federal, state, local and nonprofit communities.

The California Water Foundation attempts to transform the way water is managed in California and seeks to improve the long-term availability of water for the state’s cities, farms and environment. The organization has launched the Drought Action Initiative to address water system weaknesses and hardships that have left residents vulnerable.

The Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment works to achieve environmental justice and healthy, sustainable communities through collective action and the law. Its work is focused in California's San Joaquin Valley, a high-poverty region facing complex water issues.

Community Water Center helps build strategic, grassroots capacity to address water challenges in small, rural, low-income areas and communities of color.

Environmental Justice Coalition for Water is a statewide coalition of grassroots groups and intermediary organizations that empowers California’s underserved communities, including low-income areas and communities of color, to advocate for clean, safe and affordable water.

The Human Right to Water Bill in California, or AB 685, aims to ensure universal access to safe water by declaring that “every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable and accessible water.”

“Improve Water Quality in Rural Immigrant Communities,” a report by the University of California, Davis’ Center for Poverty Research, underscores how unsafe drinking water is a potential barrier to decreasing the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages in rural immigrant communities.

The Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center attempts to meet California’s urgent need for timely information and innovative water management solutions. The center connects independent, nonpartisan research to constructive debates on sustainable water usage in California.

Pueblo Unido Community Development Corporation responds to the needs of underserved rural communities of the Eastern Coachella Valley by fostering collaborative efforts among residents and stakeholders to improve the quality of life for its residents. The organization attempts to improve drinking water, sewer and other infrastructures for the many unlicensed mobile home parks in the region.

Save Our Water is a statewide program that provides ideas and motivation for permanently reducing water use and is reaching millions of Californians each year with its water saving tips.

The State Water Resources Control Board drought actions webpage features the latest news and information on the use and conservation of water throughout California.

Thirsty for Justice: The struggle for the human right to water” is a video featuring the stories of Californians whose health and wellness have suffered due to inadequate access to safe water and how grassroots campaigns are working to make water access a human right, backed by law.

News Reports

Fear at the Tap: Uranium Contaminates Water in the West
“ABC News,” December 8, 2015

Running Dry: In California, Drought Pits North Against South
Reuters, November 10, 2015

500 Families Out of Water in One California Town Hit Hard by Drought
KTLA-TV, November 9, 2015

Early-Season Storm Makes Small Dent in California's Drought Outlook
Los Angeles Times, November 6, 2015

Tech Companies Pitch In to Solve California's Severe Drought
“NBC Bay Area News,” October 30, 2015

Why California's Poorest Towns Still Can't Connect to Water
CityLab, October 8, 2015

Before California's Drought, a Century of Disparity
CityLab, October 1, 2015

The Forgotten Students of California’s Drought
The Atlantic, September 10, 2015

Memories of a Thirsty Childhood
Los Angeles Times
, August 16, 2015

Our Work

  • We use our resources to advance our mission through grantmaking, investments, sharing our learning and lifting our voice.
  • We fund direct services that address the urgent needs people are facing in their communities, particularly the needs of low-income individuals, people of color, youth and residents of rural areas.
  • We recognize, encourage and strengthen leaders to be powerful agents of change.
  • We support advocacy and civic engagement so that communities can build power and create public policies that reflect their vision, will and needs.
  • We trust and invest in nonprofit organizations so that they can operate at full capacity.
  • We partner with community-led organizations, philanthropic organizations, businesses, government and individuals who want to improve health and wellness for Californians.

Our Mission

To protect and improve the health and wellness of the people of California by increasing access to health care, quality education, good jobs, healthy environments and safe neighborhoods.

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