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New Report Finds Solutions for Water Justice Close at Hand

New research from the University of California, Davis, uncovers data about the most vulnerable communities in California’s San Joaquin Valley and identifies ways to provide access to safe drinking water.

Written by Tara Lohan Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
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Donna Johnson and Becky Keck talk as Johnson delivers donated drinking water to neighborhood households where wells remain dry in the fourth year of worsening drought on February 11, 2015, in East Porterville, California.David McNew/Getty Images

During the height of California’s drought, hundreds of residential wells went dry in the tiny community of East Porterville, putting it in the national spotlight. But a lack of water is not the only problem faced by small communities like East Porterville in California’s San Joaquin Valley – many also suffer from chronically contaminated water.

A new report from the Center for Regional Change at the University of California, Davis, examines the most vulnerable communities in the valley – those known as disadvantaged unincorporated communities (DUCs). These low-income communities are outside city boundaries and often lack basic services.

The researchers looked at the nearly 350,000 residents living in 450 DUCs in the San Joaquin Valley, and mapped which communities were impacted by unsafe drinking water and how far they were from public water systems serving clean water.

Most of the communities rely on groundwater, and the valley’s aquifers are some of the most polluted in the country. Providing adequate treatment and infrastructure is beyond the financial reach of many of these small DUCs.

Although help is not that far away. While DUCs are outside of cities, most are not remote. The biggest hurdle to finding safe drinking water isn’t distance. “Instead, the main obstacle may be the lack of political will to mobilize the economic resources necessary to extend city services to these neighbors,” the report found.

Water Deeply spoke with report co-author Jonathan London, an associate professor in the Department of Human Ecology and the director of the Center for Regional Change at U.C. Davis.

Water Deeply: Why the focus on disadvantaged unincorporated communities?

Jonathan London: Unincorporated communities are the canary in the coal mine. They’re facing the worst of the conditions relative to chronic water pollution, as well as climate-induced problems everything from wells going totally dry, having to sink deeper wells, getting more contaminated supplies.

Also these are places that don’t have the infrastructure, even if there is the same underlying groundwater pollution, as an incorporated community. The DUC will have a much lower level of water infrastructure and political clout to be able to get those needs addressed.

Water Deeply: What kind of numbers did you find? How widespread is the problem in the San Joaquin Valley?

London: There is to some significant degree good drinking water access in many of the DUCs, but of the public water systems serving DUCs, 24 percent are out of compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act. Those are serving about 44,000 residents in eight counties in the San Joaquin Valley in 155 DUCs.

There are also 189 DUCs, where there are 27,000 residents not served by any public water system and they are drinking water from largely unregulated private wells. Because much of the underlying groundwater is polluted with a range of contaminates, it’s most likely they’re being served with unsafe drinking water. As a result many of them are not drinking the water at all, but still paying the high cost of being served that water and they are having to pay for expensive bottled water.

Water Deeply: What did you learn about the makeup of those communities?

London: We saw signs of racial and ethnic disparities. While Hispanics are just about half of total population of valley, they represent about two-thirds of residents in DUCs and they also account for 57 percent of all residents served by out of compliance water systems, whereas Caucasians are 36 percent.

Water Deeply: You made some interesting discoveries about distance to clean water. The reports says that of residents in DUCs not fully intersected by a water system or without access to safe drinking water, 44 percent live within 500 feet of a water system in compliance with safe drinking water standards, while another 22 percent are within 1 mile and another 2 percent are within 3 miles.

London: The thing that was a surprise to us as well was how close DUCs are to water systems that could serve them. We did this spatial analysis and found that about two-third of DUC residents live close enough to a public water system that there really is significant feasibility to connect.

Most consolidation of water systems happens within that three-mile buffer. So, that’s a massive percentage of the population that really could be served with a much lower level of investment than typically thought.

Water Deeply: In 2012, California passed the Human Right to Water Law, which says that “every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable and accessible water.” How much difference has that actually made on the ground in these communities?

London: I think it’s had a significant difference. One is simply raising the profile of the DUCs and disadvantaged communities more broadly in the policy realm – that is both in the legislature and with public agencies like the Department of Water Resources and State Water Resources Control Board. It also means there is a lever that water justice advocates can pull on to compel the agencies to make good on the human right to water.

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Part of the water pipeline for Seville, California, a disadvantaged unincorporated community, runs through an irrigation ditch. The water system has had problems with bacterial contamination and aging infrastructure, creating water quality concerns for the community. (Tara Lohan)

Water Deeply: What else is still needed on the policy front, either at the state or county level?

London: There’s a lot of the factors that have created this landscape of disadvantage that have to do with local land use patterns, long-term discriminatory patterns that have segregated cities and pushed people of color and low-income people to the periphery of the city or outside city boundaries. And then have starved those areas of resources over time, because they were seen as unviable. We uncovered general plans that talked about these places as rural slums that were not worthy of investment.

While a lot of those explicit terms have been taken out of general plans, there still is a real problem of cities and counties either not investing in the places that are within their city boundaries or within their spheres of influence, and then in many cases still not moving toward incorporating or annexing these communities.

So there is a range of civil rights actions that can be taken. Senate Bill 1000 [passed in 2016] requires cities and counties to include an environmental justice element when updating their general plans or even just several elements of a general plan – I think that’s one way that DUCs can be addressed by local land use planning.

Water Deeply: Money is of course another issue. The environmental justice community is supporting Senate Bill 623, which would provide a fund to help support long-term clean water investments. How important would that be?

London: I think it’s crucial. Having a stable, long-term sustainable source for these sorts of investments, not just to put in infrastructure but for ongoing operations and maintenance, is really critical.

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