Growing Returns

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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Water heroes emerge in California’s Central Valley

Water board leaders from 13 communities throughout California's Central Valley attended the Leadership Academy to build engagement capacity and share lessons about small water system management.

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

California’s Central Valley, which stretches 450 miles from Redding in the north to Bakersfield in the south, is the nation’s richest agricultural region, producing 40 percent of our fruit, vegetables and nuts on nearly 9 million acres of irrigated farmland. The Valley is also ground zero for California’s water problems.

As California endures its fifth year of drought, cities, farms, and communities across the state are experiencing severe water stress. Rivers, lakes and reservoirs are drying up, so residents are turning to groundwater pumping to quench their thirst. As a result, many of the state’s groundwater aquifers are being depleted, causing wells to run dry or become contaminated.

The most critically overdrawn aquifers are in and around small, rural communities in the Central Valley. Here, thousands of people—many of them low-income farm workers—live without safe drinking water.

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From Mexico City to San Francisco: A multi-national perspective on water management

Ana Lucia Garcia Briones (left) joined colleagues for a visit to the Kern Water Bank, which uses California’s groundwater space to store 1.5 million acre feet of water and retrieve it when account holders need it.

Ana Lucia Garcia Briones (left) joined colleagues for a visit to the Kern Water Bank in Bakersfield, California, which uses California’s groundwater space to store 1.5 million acre feet of water and retrieve it when account holders need it.

On World Water Day, I am reminded of what brought me to the Environmental Defense Fund: a passion for working on market-based incentive programs to improve groundwater management in California, ultimately benefiting multiple, diverse communities.

Born and raised in Mexico City, I moved to San Francisco to work on drought-related problems in California. It has been a surreal experience, allowing me to help disproportionately impacted communities, many of which are poor Latino communities in the rural Central Valley, where most of the nation’s fruits and vegetables are grown. In this way, I feel a little bit closer to home.

Water security for all

Many people may not realize it, but only about 5 percent of usable water in California is visible; the rest is underground. With access to surface water curtailed because of a five-year drought, many of the state’s biggest water users – farms and cities – have relied on groundwater pumping as a last resort. This has drawn down aquifers to dangerously low levels, and has left some rural communities without any water at all.  Read More »

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