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The Realities of Water Insecurity in California

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.

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