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

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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:

  1. Listen and engage communities who have been historically left out of water policy.
  2. Provide education to support such engagement.
  3. Quickly deploy funding and resources to fulfill the vision of the state’s Human Right to Water.
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. Share on X

Latinos are disproportionately affected by contaminated water

Earlier this year, a six-month investigation by The Guardian found that U.S. water systems in counties that are 25% or more Latino are violating drinking water contamination rules at twice the rate of those in the rest of the country.

Between 2003 and 2017, tests detected elevated levels of nitrate in 140 water systems in California serving 5.25 million people.

Residents have told me how such contamination forces them to spend as much as 10% of their income on supplemental bottled water.

According to the National Center for Farmworker Health, these water inequalities have existed in the Central Valley for decades, in part because 83% of farmworkers are Latino and agriculture is the largest contributor to nitrogen in U.S. water resources. Small systems are also often hit hardest because they have fewer resources to fix problems.

There are two other reasons these water inequalities have persisted: The communities’ needs have been ignored and policymakers have chosen to invest money elsewhere.

1. Engage the community — authentically — to drive sustainable solutions.

Fortunately, many community-based organizations are advocating to decision-makers at all levels to eliminate water inequality in the Central Valley and are providing tools and technical solutions to rural communities.

As we note in the video “The Magic of Groundwater,” community engagement is perhaps the most important water management strategy, but it must be authentic and not just lip service.

I also know firsthand there are obstacles to genuine community engagement that can be difficult to overcome, including busy families with parents often working more than one job while juggling care for their children.

But it’s imperative to take the time to be informed, participate in the public discussion and engage with the organizations that are working hard to provide safe drinking water in the Valley. And local and state agencies must prioritize finding ways to make it easier for these busy families to learn and participate.

2. Educate communities about a hidden resource.

Because groundwater is below the surface and hidden from our eyes, the importance of managing it carefully has historically been overlooked — until something breaks. But everybody in California should learn the basics of groundwater management because it is such a critical source of water.

“La Magia de Agua Subterránea,” our latest video in Spanish, aims to provide this introduction to groundwater management. It tells the story of the water beneath the surface and how we, Californians, can manage it better. The more people who know how groundwater works, the more awareness and engagement will follow.

3. Show us the money.

Of course, community engagement can only go so far. Dedicating substantial funding and resources to solutions is essential to addressing water inequality.

Earlier this year, a state assessment estimated $4.6 billion is needed to help water systems struggling to provide safe drinking water implement long-term solutions.

Fortunately, the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework includes $55 billion for water projects across the country, and the latest state budget includes $1.3 billion for drinking water and wastewater infrastructure.

All of this money should be deployed quickly because the record-setting drought and groundwater overpumping are already causing more wells to go dry.

Something is clearly broken if nearly 1 million Californians, including many Latinos, still can’t drink water out of their kitchen sinks.

Hispanic Heritage Month may be ending, but the predominantly Latino farmworkers who pick our food will continue working hard in the fields. For these workers, it’s time to fix what’s broken with our state’s water system by investing the funds and resources that are required and working directly with communities on solutions.

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