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How Clean Water Transforms Communities

Earl Lui

Finally, water that is safe enough to bathe in. Leonicio Ramirez and his family were among the first residents to get water from a new water distribution in East Porterville in 2016. (Photo credit: California Department of Water Resources)

Back in 2007, I sat with Susana De Anda and Laurel Firestone, co-founders (and only staff members) of Community Water Center in their small office in Visalia, CA. They showed me plastic water bottles filled with samples of contaminated drinking water from small towns in the area, along with a decrepit, rusted pipe from one of the local water systems. Susana and Laurel had recently left their positions at an established environmental justice organization to create a new nonprofit focused solely on helping communities have access to safe and clean water. I knew how important their work was then, and how much the work would matter to communities going forward.

But I could have hardly imagined that such a tiny nonprofit would become such a statewide powerhouse 12 years later.

In that time, they built up an amazing organization and advocated tirelessly for safe and clean water. And their efforts paid off — on July 24, 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed SB 200, which provides $1.4 billion over 11 years toward safe, clean, and affordable drinking water for all California residents. It’s a colossal victory ­— getting that amount of money in state funding for a new program is a huge lift. It couldn’t have been achieved without the hard work of organizations like CWC and other partners (and Cal Wellness grantees) Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability and Clean Water Fund.

Clean water means a better life

In terms of health equity, clean water is a crucial issue. California residents who haven’t had access to clean and safe drinking water have faced so many challenges over the years. Those who don’t have clean water coming from the taps in their home are not able to consume or use the water in any way. Children cannot even take showers using the water coming from their taps. This has meant purchasing bottled water to consume, cook with, and bathe with – all while continuing to pay the water company for water they’re not able to drink. Their lives will now change for the better with the passing of this bill.

The long road to success

Such a triumph has been a long time coming. When I think back to that time in 2007, safe and clean water wasn’t an issue that policymakers were paying particular attention to. But the fact of the matter remains that 1 million people in California still don’t have access to safe drinking water and it’s a problem that continues to grow. We at Cal Wellness find that to be unacceptable.

And it’s a victory that truly took a village. The diligent work of the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Coalition, made up of groups like Community Water Center, Clean Water Fund, and Leadership Counsel and with important support from the Water Foundation was invaluable in getting this legislation passed so that Californians could have access to safe, clean, and affordable drinking water. This victory is also a reminder that public policy solutions need to come from community residents and grassroots nonprofit organizations, rather than being imposed from the top down.

Thinking back to 2007 again, it’s gratifying to see an organization like Community Water Center grow from two employees in one office to 14 staff in three offices. It’s a reminder that foundations need to fund small organizations with big ideas. Cal Wellness has supported Community Water Center with several multiyear core operating support grants since 2007. Funding like this gives small nonprofits the flexibility to determine how best to meet their needs, whether they are programmatic or organizational development ones.

Foundations sometimes think it’s risky to make grants to small, start-up nonprofits like Community Water Center was in 2007. But imagine if that organization didn’t get the funding it needed to survive and then had to shut down. Would we be celebrating passage of the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund in 2019? Maybe instead of worrying about the risks of a small nonprofit closing its doors, funders should do the opposite – and imagine the possibilities if that nonprofit blooms and accomplishes some of the important goals that inspired its founding.

Earl Lui image

Earl Lui leads grantmaking related to advancing health care reform and the Affordable Care Act and fostering healthy environments.

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