Widening the Conversation about Safe Drinking Water in the San Joaquin Valley
The theme of this Friday’s World Water Day is the lack of safe drinking water that affects many millions of people worldwide. Here in California, the San Joaquin Valley is a hot spot for unsafe drinking water. The region has more than half of all public water systems that are out of water-quality compliance in California, but just 10% of the state’s population. In addition, chronic decline in groundwater levels has caused drinking water wells go dry in a number of the region’s communities. We talked to Veronica Garibay—co-founder and co-director of the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability—about ways to ensure community involvement in water management decision-making processes.
PPIC: What is key to understanding the valley’s safe drinking water crisis?
VERONICA GARIBAY: Water management is a particularly opaque and complex process, and past decision-making processes related to land use and water management failed to meaningfully include disadvantaged community voices and address their needs.
Climate change brings major risks to our water resources. The communities that are already the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change—including water shortages during droughts, worsening water quality, flooding, and other problems—will see their vulnerability exacerbated. We have to change the way we manage water resources to adapt to these changes.
We have to bring our most vulnerable communities into these conversations, prioritize their needs, and make sure they, too, have decision-making authority over policy, programs, and projects.
Disadvantaged communities have been at the forefront of the progress we’ve already made on providing safe drinking water. They led the charge that gave the State Water Board the authority to consolidate small systems into larger ones, brought emergency funds to communities whose wells went dry during the drought, and led to the board’s establishment of the Office of Sustainable Drinking Water Solutions. Now their leadership is building momentum around the proposed safe and affordable drinking water fund, which would provide much-needed resources to pay for ongoing operations and maintenance costs and capital projects to ensure safe drinking water.
PPIC: The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act requires local agencies to protect water quality while balancing groundwater supplies and demands. Why is it important for disadvantaged communities to participate in this process?
VG: Water is a critical resource to all of us, and the most vulnerable people should have a say in its management. Communities have a lot to contribute and need to be part of the solution. As a region we need to democratize the process and make sure that all interests are considered.
We’re working to ensure that planning for groundwater sustainability is more inclusive by encouraging groundwater sustainability agencies to establish authentic and meaningful space for direct community input and engaging communities most vulnerable to water quantity and quality issues in the region. We want to see sustainability plans that incentivize programs, policies, and projects that support safe drinking water and benefit households in disadvantaged communities.
PPIC: Are there good models for participation in the process?
VG: The North Fork Kings groundwater sustainability agency (GSA) has established a rural community advisory committee. It helps bring disadvantaged rural communities into the process to develop a sustainability plan. That’s a good step in making sure communities are providing direct input.
And the Madera GSA is encouraging all stakeholders to learn from each other and talk to each other. They’re making sure a variety of stakeholders get in the same room to learn how decision making on water affects different groups, and how we can shape solutions together.
We’d like to see more GSAs give some authority to disadvantaged communities and meaningfully build space into their processes for communities to participate.
Equal access to information is also key—what’s being presented at meetings should be accessible and in different languages if needed. And we need to ensure there is space to give feedback and that this feedback is reflected in the final sustainability plans.
These efforts will take work. Organizations like ours, and Self Help Enterprises and the Community Water Center, have all offered to collaborate with GSAs and help them engage community participation. The state has provided some funds for community engagement as part of its support of the SGMA planning process. But GSAs will also need to budget for equity—plan for and allocate resources to make sure they’re intentionally engaging communities.