Growing Returns

3 acciones críticas para la equidad del agua en las comunidades latinas de California — ¡apúrense!

Es una paradoja penosa para California, la quinta economía más grande del mundo: Algunos de los mismos trabajadores agrícolas que recogen nuestra comida no pueden beber un vaso de agua limpia, o ni siquiera tener agua, en fregadero de la cocina.

He trabajado en temas de justicia ambiental en EDF durante los últimos seis años, y he tenido la oportunidad de hablar con algunos de estos trabajadores esenciales, muchos de los cuales provienen de países de habla hispana como yo.

A medida que el Mes de la Herencia Hispana llega a su fin, la sequía en California avanza obstinadamente. Es importante reconocer cuán importantes son estos trabajadores del campo que cosechan los alimentos en todo nuestro estado y más allá.

Más allá del reconocimiento que se merecen los trabajadores del campo, los líderes estatales y locales deben tomar al menos tres pasos críticos para eliminar esta paradoja:

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3 critical actions for water equity in California’s Latino communities – ¡apúrense!

Lea en español

It is a painful paradox for California, the world’s fifth-largest economy: Some of the very same farmworkers who pick our food can’t drink a glass of clean water — or any water in some cases — from their kitchen sink.

While working on environmental justice issues at EDF for the past six years, I have had the opportunity to talk with some of these essential workers, many of whom come from Spanish-speaking countries like me.

As Hispanic Heritage Month comes to a close while the drought in California stubbornly marches on, it’s important to recognize how instrumental these farmworkers are to providing food throughout our state and beyond.

But besides recognition, state and local leaders need to take at least three critical steps to eliminate this paradox:

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Developing rural water leaders as drought and water scarcity intensify

An immigrant who left Mexico when he was young to make a new life in California. The owner of a small family farm who grew up in the Central Valley. A water utility operator who served in the Navy.

These are among the diverse participants who graduated at the end of July from our fourth cohort of the Water Leadership Institute, a program developed to help rural communities more effectively participate in water decision-making and policy.

EDF partnered with the Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC) and Self Help Enterprises six years ago, after passage of California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), to develop the Water Leadership Institute. The West Turlock Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA) joined forces with EDF and RCAC to bring the institute to Stanislaus County for this fourth installment, which was hosted online due to COVID-19.

Over 15 weeks, I had the wonderful opportunity to get to know these leaders better as they developed skills and understanding that will help them become stronger advocates for their water resources and their communities.

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Small California farmers are often overlooked in water policy. Here’s a look at their unique challenges.

Ruth Dahlquist-Willard is a small farms adviser with the University of California Cooperative Extension, focusing on immigrant, refugee and other farmers with limited resources in the San Joaquin Valley.

Many of the Southeast Asian farmers she supports are first-generation immigrants who came to California starting in the late 1970s after the Secret War in Laos, or who came as recently as 2004. Some of the Latino farmers are first-generation immigrants who were previously farm laborers and are now moving into operating their own farms. Read More »

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Don’t let funding dry up for safe and affordable drinking water

Two important water reports were released recently that address the lack of safe and affordable drinking water in some California communities, despite our state’s position as an environmental leader. Read More »

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California leaders finally stepped up on clean, affordable water. One small water district explains this challenge.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has signed long-overdue legislation to dedicate up to $130 million a year to provide clean, affordable drinking water to more than 1 million Californians who still lack access to this vital resource. The legislation creates the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund to help cash-strapped, smaller water systems, which primarily serve rural, low-income communities.

The Seeley County Water District, located in Imperial County approximately 20 miles from Mexican border, is one of these communities.

Miriam Rosales and Aaron Garcia call Seeley home and have made it their mission to provide better water service to the town’s 2,000 residents. Miriam, a 46-year resident of Seeley, began at the district as the board’s secretary and became administrative general manager in 2017. Aaron began working in the water sector after being laid off as a music teacher and worked his way up to become Seeley’s chief operator in 2018.

Both participated in the Leadership Institute, a program originally developed by the Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC), Self Help Enterprises and Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) to help disadvantaged communities more effectively engage on water-related decision-making and policy. RCAC, EDF, and Imperial County’s Community and Economic Development Office customized the program to address the issues of Imperial County.

Understanding Miriam and Aaron’s challenges is helpful to understanding how a state as prosperous and innovative as California can struggle to provide safe drinking water to all its residents. Here are some excerpts from a recent conversation I had with them about their work.

Miriam Rosales, administrative general manager, and Aaron Garcia, chief operator, had made it their mission to provide better water to their community while leading the Seeley County Water District.

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Enough with the delays. Here’s why California’s rural communities need safe drinking water now.

Jim Maciel knows about the challenges of providing safe and affordable drinking in California all too well.

His experience serving as director of a small water district highlights why state legislators’ approval of $140 million in new annual funding to provide safe, affordable water to all Californians is long overdue.

Jim is one of about 37 water leaders who I have had the privilege of meeting through the Leadership Institute, a training program created by Rural Community Assistance Corporation and expanded by Environmental Defense Fund and Self Help Enterprises. Many of these leaders are stewards of small community water systems, which serve 10,000 or fewer customers. Their small size is a big part of their challenge.

Jim Maciel, a board member of the Armona Community Services District, and EDF’s Ana Lucia García Briones take a tour of the district’s arsenic treatment plant in the Central Valley. Photo Credit: Kike Arnal Read More »

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California’s rural water systems needs leaders. Who will step up next?

Water leaders from 13 communities throughout California’s San Joaquin Valley attended the Leadership Institute to build engagement capacity and share lessons about small water system management. (Credit: Kike Arnal)

There I was again, in the car on Highway 99, on my way from San Francisco to Visalia, in the heart of California’s San Joaquin Valley. I had made the trip a dozen times over the past year. But this trip was different. This time I was headed to a reunion.

Back in December 2016, I wrote about a cohort of 30 community water advocates who had just graduated from the Rural Water Boards Leadership Institute – a joint effort sponsored by the Rural Community Assistance Corporation, Self Help Enterprises and Environmental Defense Fund to train residents in the San Joaquin Valley on how to engage on state water policy. Participants spent six months attending workshops and learning about California’s landmark law to end groundwater over pumping and how the law – known as the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, or SGMA – might affect their small community water systems. They discussed methods for engaging state policy makers and learned advocacy and communication skills.

Now, almost a year after their graduation, these water leaders were meeting again to catch up, share stories and explore new opportunities to learn from one another. Read More »

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New film shows that clean water isn’t a guarantee for many in California

California’s drought and the San Joaquin Valley’s groundwater crisis

Farms in Kern County along the California Aqueduct, in southern San Joaquin Valley.

National Geographic’s new film, “Water & Power: A California Heist,” explores the impacts of California’s drought and the San Joaquin Valley’s groundwater crisis, and highlights issues surrounding the state’s water rights and the powerful interests that sometimes control them.

The film, which uses beautiful cinematography and testimonials from lawyers, water managers and residents, offers a stark contrast between those who have continued to profit during California’s drought and those who have struggled to meet even their most basic water needs.

The film places an emphasis on the “Monterey Amendments,” a back-room deal struck in 1994 that included the creation of the Kern Water Bank, and opened the door to the bank’s eventual privatization. At the time, well-endowed businesses with large land holdings were given control of these groundwater reserves, which they used to shore up highly profitable agricultural businesses. Since then, groundwater levels have plummeted and become contaminated, impacting safe drinking water supplies for small communities.

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Why one wet winter won’t solve California’s water problems

Aerial view of Briones Reservoir

Aerial view of a nearly full Briones Reservoir, a large reservoir in the hills near Orinda, California.

It’s been a good winter for drought-stricken California. Record-breaking precipitation in January has raised reservoir levels and added to the essential Sierra Nevada snowpack.

According to the National Weather Service, some parts of the state received over 200 percent average precipitation for January, and current snowpack levels are at 173 percent of average. This is important, because snowpack stores vast amounts of water that is slowly released as temperatures rise in the spring and summer.

Heavy rainfall also provides the opportunity for on-farm recharge, a method of deliberately flooding farm fields to help replenish groundwater aquifers.

There is certainly cause for optimism, but it’s going to take more than a few rainy months to solve California’s water woes.

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