California’s poor rural communities have been hard hit by the current drought, which has brought drying wells and reduced water quality. Laurel Firestone is co-director of the Community Water Center, where she focuses on advocating for safe, reliable and affordable water supplies for vulnerable communities in the San Joaquin Valley. She was a speaker at an event to launch the PPIC Water Policy Center report What If the California Drought Continues?, which found maintaining safe rural water supply to be one of the biggest challenges of ongoing drought. Here she describes some of our water inequities, and ways to solve them.
PPIC: What are some successes arising from this drought?
Laurel Firestone: I think some of the biggest successes have been at the state level. First of all, the voter-approved water bond included half a billion dollars for small disadvantaged communities. The budget includes a lot of money for emergency drought response. Additionally, the drinking water program at the State Water Board has made huge strides in getting money to the communities. Bigger picture, the passage of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act was essential. About 90 percent of communities in the San Joaquin Valley rely on groundwater, with many households using shallow wells that have gone dry as commercial wells have been drilled deeper.
On the local level, people are stepping up, too. Some cities have reached out to neighboring communities whose wells are running dry—for example, the city of Farmersville hooked up close to 100 homes whose wells were about to go dry. Some amazing volunteer and local service providers have been going door to door in some of the hardest hit areas. They’re helping get water to people who were already in dire circumstances and now also have to deal with turning on the tap and figuring out how they’re going to shower, feed their children, meet basic sanitation needs.
PPIC: If the drought continues, what needs to be done to improve water supply for poor, rural communities?
LF: There are a few main areas we’ll need to focus on. The first is that we have inadequate information on where households are going dry. We really don’t have a handle on this problem, particularly for private wells. The state’s plan for identifying vulnerable private-well communities and funding solutions to this problem is completely inadequate. We’ll have to quickly come up to speed to address this.
Renters have not been able to get state assistance to buy emergency water tanks. They have been able to get bottled water delivery, or have gotten help from private charities or churches. But we have millions of dollars in emergency drought funding, and it needs to get to people whether they own property or not. I know the state has been trying to get better at this, but there’s an urgent need for better coordination between the state and locals to make sure that the money is getting to those who need it most and in the most effective ways.
As part of our emergency response, we should address inefficiencies in areas that are most acutely impacted by the drought. For example, installing water meters will let people know how much water they’re using and help local water systems find leaks more quickly.
We also must accelerate long term solutions. We need to fundamentally shift how we’re delivering water to rural communities and look at ways we can build resiliency and get economies of scale. That means not having individual homes or small neighborhoods rely on a single well, which makes them incredibly vulnerable to any changes to that water supply. I think there’s a lot of promise with the way the state is looking at drinking water and pushing for consolidation and shared water supplies. More needs to be done to make sure there is diverse water supply in these areas.
The water bond brings a large chunk of capital and technical assistance; we need to invest it in solutions that are sustainable and affordable, and supply safe water to our most vulnerable even in future droughts.
Watch a video of the panel discussion What If California’s Drought Continues? (August 2015)