This article appears in our 2015 Summer issue, Blue. Subscribe today!
California is running dry. The drought continues to gain national attention with its fourth year of record-low rainfall. But to many people living in mostly rural, low-income communities, water scarcity is nothing new. One and a half million Californians have toxic, fertilizer-laced water pouring from their taps—runoff from farmland that brings in $35 billion annually for the state in agriculture. And Latino communities—83 percent of farmworkers are native Spanish-speakers—are disproportionately affected by polluted water.
Water issues hit home for activist Susana De Anda. She grew up among farmworkers in California’s Central Valley and now campaigns for clean, affordable water as co-executive director and co-founder of the Community Water Center. De Anda and her team have leveraged that spotlight on the unending drought to help pass significant water-rights laws, including the first law in the nation that declared safe and clean water as a human right. Last year, in another victory, the state passed a law requiring local governments to sustainably manage their own groundwater—underground water that wells tap into and which make up a third of California’s water supply.
This spring, California Governor Jerry Brown made headlines when he called for reducing residential and business water use by 25 percent. In a state that’s thirsty for change, De Anda is working for communities who need relief the most.
In college, you earned a degree in environmental science and geography. What was your path from science to community organizing?
I come from a farmworker family and I went to school not to avoid working in the fields, but to ensure that we provide respect for those that do work in the fields. When I graduated, my first job was as a community organizer, which was life changing. I learned about social infrastructure and that people can actually create change once they organize.
It’s not okay to live in fear of becoming sick if you drink tap water. It’s not okay that our children go to school with water fountains that don’t produce safe drinking water. When you realize that’s not okay and that it’s not happening in wealthier communities, you start to think, “How do we change it?”
Growing up in a family of farmworkers, did you think about water rights? How was water a part of your life as a kid?
Interestingly enough, my grandfather always showed a respect for rain. My family is from Mexico, and I would go there every summer. Every time it would rain, there were a lot of prayers given out. Even in the local church, the priest would pray and be grateful when it would rain, because in Mexico there’s [very little] irrigation. I grew up in a community of paying a lot of respect to water and the way we use water. Going to school, I ended up working with the Santa Barbara County Water Agency as a Spanish-language spokesperson. Water has been an issue that I just gravitate toward—we can’t be so disconnected from it because we need it to survive.
Tell me about the water issues you were working on before the drought hit four years ago.
More than a million people in California are exposed to illegal and unsafe levels of contaminated tap water. There are studies that show that if you are low-income, a person of color, and you live in the Central Valley, you’re going to have higher chances of having polluted water. In the Central Valley, a lot of people have arsenic, uranium, and nitrates in their water. You can’t even smell it or taste it; you have to be informed that it’s in your drinking water.
So hardworking families are paying twice for water. Once, for water they can’t use, and then again, having to spend up to 10 percent of their household income just on drinking water. Our poorest are paying the highest, most expensive water bills for toxic water.
Here at Community Water Center, we believe that clean water is a basic human right and it should not be a privilege. No matter where you live, you should be able to drink a glass of water from your home without worrying that you’re going to become sick.
Three years ago, we passed AB-685, a state law that says all Californians need to have access to safe drinking water. It prioritizes funding and resources to those who don’t have access to clean water. It’s the first law in the country that exists, and is very indicative of the reality that we live in. Water is complex, but at the end of the day, it is very basic. It should be clean for human consumption, and that needs to be a priority.
Now you add the layer of the drought. People who have the ability and resources to drill deeper into our aquifers or drill a new well are usually wealthier people. [It’s like a] straw that is just sucking water from underneath our feet, causing a lot of wells to go dry. This past summer, many families had no running water in their homes. For the last 10 years that I’ve been working on water, I’ve never seen so many families without water. I’ve seen thousands of families with contaminated drinking water, but no water at all just adds another layer of urgency.
What happened to the families with no water?
In one community called East Porterville, more than 600 wells have gone dry. This is a community where most homeowners have private wells. They organized and mobilized and started installing 300-gallon tanks outside of their homes. Then they went around filling up water from other sources with these big jugs, they kind of remind you of hazardous waste barrels. The families would go outside, fill up a bucket, and come inside and wash dishes or flush a toilet.
That’s how people were living for a long time. It’s almost been a year and a half, and a lot of these families are in the same situation. I know another family in a different community—again private homeowners whose wells have gone dry—who had no running water for a year. Every day after work, they would go get water from someone and fill up [a big storage jug] and bring it home, and use that water for washing their dishes, even for showering. That’s how they made ends meet for a year. That family got assistance to drill a well with a low-interest loan. That’s what they had to do.
One thing we want to make sure we don’t say is that the solution is universal. The solutions are very unique, and they have to be designed for that specific community and need in order for us to be sustainable. However, we want to make sure that we prepare those communities for long-term change. We don’t want to just focus on the short-term, and give them a Band-Aid. We want to bring relief but also position those communities with long-term strategies and sustainable solutions. For example, in East Porterville, it’s not going to be okay if we just install these huge water tanks and do water hauling and believe that we’re done. We have to think broader than that.
What are the differences between how low-income communities are responding to the drought compared to wealthier towns?
Low-income disadvantaged communities are the best water conservationists: At the end of the day, we’re not going to waste water because it costs money.
What we’ve seen is that, once again, the resources and funding don’t come quickly enough to communities that need it the most. And wealthier communities can easily just drill another well, can easily go deeper into the aquifer, and get more sources of water.
In addition to that, in bigger cities and bigger communities, wealthier communities have more technical resources to access funding and write up technical grants. They have more capacity to leverage their resources. In our communities, we’re at a huge disadvantage because we don’t have real access to technical assistance. Many times, we don’t even know what assistance is available, much less how to actually apply for it.
What do you think the state could learn from the communities you work with?
The whole state needs to recognize that no human being can live without water. We can live without a cell phone, we can live without other things, but we can’t live without water. However, we cannot ignore the fact that it’s our farmworkers who are hit the hardest [and who] sustain our agricultural industry in California.
We have to look at this from a holistic perspective. Everything’s connected. Our communities want to make sure that they have safe drinking water for themselves, their families, and their kids in school. They want to be able to go to work and have a healthy and thriving lifestyle, and it’s not going to happen unless all of us come to the table and recognize that we have to share water.
The drought is now front-page news in California and nationwide. What do you think is still missing from the headlines? What do people still not seem to understand?
There’s a combination of things that people need to understand. One, unfortunately, is water contamination. Nitrates are one of the primary contaminant that’s polluting wells. Nitrates are linked to cancer and blue baby syndrome. Studies have shown that over 96 percent of agricultural practices contribute to nitrate pollution, mainly from chemical fertilizer and animal waste. That’s not a big, “Oh, wow.” We know that, we live in agriculture. At the very basic level, everyone needs to understand their water quality. If you have good water quality, you’re very privileged, because that’s not the reality of many other Californians.
Then, I would say that areas that do have safe drinking water need to leverage and bring support for areas that don’t. It’s not okay that one Californian has good water and another doesn’t, depending on where you live. All of us need to understand that everyone deserves to have safe drinking water.
All Californians need to understand that water is essential for life, and it’s finite. We don’t have this resource forever.
In all the media coverage of the drought, what voices don’t get heard often enough?
When we want to talk about water conservation and reduction, [we need to have] a transparent conversation, and everyone needs to be at the table. Farmworker communities understand the reduction of water. They understand they have to use less water for their lawns or washing their cars. But then they tell me, “Susana, it’s so easy for them to tell us we can’t wash our cars. But I have no good water in my tap. How long do I have to live like this?”
The real issue is making sure that the water delivered through our infrastructure is of good quality. The state has a huge responsibility to ensure that all Californians have that. It’s not okay that the farmworkers in the valley don’t have that reality. That’s what I want to see in the headlines.
What will California look like in 10 years? Do you feel like the state is making the changes that are needed in order to actually get quality water to everyone and reduce water usage?
I am hopeful that the state’s going to be sustainable, meaning that big changes are going to have to happen. Those changes are going to have to be created collectively. Everyone’s going to be affected by it, and if it means that we’re not going to have certain crops grown, it means that we’re not going to have certain crops grown. If it means we can’t wash our cars for a long time, that’s what it means. If it means that we don’t have grass lawns, then we have to get rid of grass. I think California is moving into an era where we need to have a better connection with our water. Let’s prioritize it. Let’s first make sure that people have safe drinking water before we worry about our lawns.