Millions lack access to clean drinking water

Porterville resident Erasto Terán sharer his experiences with water issues during a Town Hall hosted by California Endowment’s #Agua4All Campaign in Sacramento last week.
Porterville resident Erasto Terán sharer his experiences with water issues during a Town Hall hosted by California Endowment’s #Agua4All Campaign in Sacramento last week.

Miguel Bibanco lives 15 minutes on the outskirts of the City of Kerman in the Central San Joaquín Valley.

“You open the doors to my backyard and you see almond trees. You open the doors to the front of my house and all you can see are the vines of the grapes. I live in an area that is dominated by agriculture,” said Bibanco.

His community is also one that is constantly faced with challenges. There are education gaps; criminal justice gaps and health gaps. But, there is no greater gap than that between a basic human right: water.

Last year, a broken water pump caused havoc in the small, farm working community where he and his family work and reside. In a rich state like California, Bibanco assumed it would be repaired within hours — perhaps even a day and life would resume as normal. But, he was wrong.

“We went an entire week without access to water. It may not sound bad to go a day without water, but try to imagine an entire week. It was an extremely severe situation,” said Bibanco.

To access water — both to drink and to wash dishes with, shower and do the laundry, amongst other basic necessities, Bibanco and his family had to walk a mile and a half to a neighboring well and carry back buckets of water for an entire week to meet their basic water necessities.

The experience was mind boggling.

“How many families have the time to go to a neighbors house to literally carry buckets of water? I started thinking to myself, we are a working-class family that strives to make ends meet each day. Yet, we made time to go out and get water, but how many families do not have that luxury and choose instead, to go without water?”

As an Opinions Editor for ThekNOW Youth Media, Bibanco shared his personal experience to highlight a major, ongoing and systemic problem in the state of California; the lack of water.

At a community town hall titled “Agua4All” hosted by the California Endowment, the Community Water Center, and the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, Bibanco and several water experts, activists and those most severely impacted by the lack of water infrastructure, access to affordable, clean drinking water and other water challenges, shared their insights to a growing and ongoing problem in California.

“No matter where you are or where you live, you should be able to drink a glass of clean water in your home or neighborhood without worrying that it will make you sick,” said Daniel Zingale, Executive Vice President of The California Endowment.

Nearly one million Californians are currently facing water challenges in the state of California. Most do no not have access to clean drinking water that is also unsafe for cooking and washing. Others are spending thousands of dollars for bottled water for everyday use and others are traveling hundreds of miles to find a safe water source near their home.

Californians living in high-poverty, low-income, working-class, immigrant, rural and farm working communities are the most affected and least able to afford the extra expense. In the Central San Joaquín Valley, the problem is worse with thousands suffering from not having safe, clean and affordable drinking water— and it has been a persistent problem for decades.

Water experts say the challenges are rarely addressed by those in positions of power.

“There is a disconnect in the halls of the State Capitol. Because water is considered the most basic of necessities, it is often assumed that all have access and thus, it is an issue that is not prioritized and they leave it to local governments to deal with,” said Laurel Firestone, Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director of the Community Water Center.

The problem with this assumption is that millions who are facing severe water challenges are left to deal with the problem on their own. The California Endowment estimates there are 300,000 undocumented people living in the Central San Joaquín Valley who are impacted by the lack of water.

“These people are isolated both geographically and linguistically. They are disenfranchised communities; people who are living in unincorporated communities,” said Noe Paramo, Co-Director of the Sustainable Rural Communities Project Legislative Advocate at the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation.

“They are farm workers. They make less than $10,000 a year. They can barely get by despite being the hands that feed us. And worse, they don’t have access to water.”

Activists say, the Flint Water Crisis helped elevate the water challenges not just in Michigan, but also in the State of California.

“It was one of those moments where those in positions of power had to pick up the rock that they don’t often want to see — that rock in low-income communities and communities of color — and really look at the lack of opportunities and resources, only to find out that water, the most basic of necessities, is non-existent,” said Firestone.

One place that is continually facing water challenges is the small, rural and unincorporated community of East Porterville where nearly 400 residents struggle to find access to clean water. With California well into it’s ongoing drought, the problem has been exasperated in small, rural communities throughout the Central San Joaquín Valley.

Families continue to struggle to meet the most basic of necessities — a problem that has persisted in the last decade.

“I still hear stories of immigrant families having their children go off to college, only to come back to their communities and being forced to use their financial aid to help their parents make it through. The situation is getting worse,” said Paramo.

Water experts say there are forty counties in California who are currently facing water challenges due to the drought with the vast majority in the Central Valley. There are also a number of small communities on the outskirts of Sacramento that are facing similar water woes.

Water advocates believe having access to water should be a basic human right, not a privilege.

“If we look at those communities that are facing water challenges; they are also targets of over-policing, over-criminalization, systemic racism and discrimination. They are low-income and impoverished. The last worry they need to have is access to clean, safe and reliable drinking water,” said Bibanco.

Passage of the Water Bond is expected to help communities with having access to clean, drinking water, as well as water infrastructure projects that are so necessary in smaller communities in the Central Valley. Firestone says the money will be a good short-term solution, but finding long-term funding is the key to solving the problem.

“About a half billion is going to be allocated to small disadvantaged communities as well as for technical assistance, but we won’t be seeing that money until May or June of this year. I suspect it will really help many communities find access to water,” said Firestone.

While elected officials continue to grapple both with the drought and meeting the water needs of all Californians, Firestone says those who are impacted the most should mobilize and make it clear to their elected officials and other representatives that their water challenges are very real and should be made a priority.

“It’s time for those impacted to take power, raise their voice and make this issue more visible. It’s time to shift the conversation from providing water for just agricultural purposes to actually providing the most basic of human necessities,” said Firestone.