As Flint’s water goes, so goes California’s

by Ray Gonzales, originally posted on April 20, 2016


Like all Americans, Californians feel a combination of shock and anger at the unfolding water crisis in Flint, Mich.

During the past few months, we learned that local officials sworn to protect Flint instead ignored obvious signs of crisis and allowed poisonous water to flow into school drinking fountains and home kitchen sinks.

If it seems hard to believe that Michigan officials could be so foolish, consider this: California is currently facing a drinking water crisis that makes Flint’s look small by comparison.

According to official state reports, unsafe drinking water reached the homes and schools of more than 1 million Californians in 2014. And that number certainly understates the problem. Tens of thousands more lack access to safe water in their homes, either because they are not connected to the public water grid or because they are served by tiny utilities without the leadership, resources and expertise needed to remove contaminants from the water.

Challenges exist throughout the state, but they are concentrated in California’s agricultural areas, including the Salinas Valley, Southern San Joaquin Valley and Inland Empire region — among the most impoverished areas of our state. Studies show that families in these communities spend up to 10 percent of their income on water, relying on bottled water for drinking, cooking and even bathing.

Local education systems also suffer. Schools without access to clean, safe water are often forced to install expensive filtration systems or purchase bottled water to keep their students safe. That is money they aren’t spending on teachers, counselors and books. It pushes these greatest-need school districts even further behind, creating additional obstacles for children hoping to be the first in their family to attend college.

There are many reasons that small rural communities are most likely to have contaminated water, including the ongoing drought and the long-term effects of agricultural runoff. But the biggest reason has little to do with rain or farming. It’s about power and respect. Communities with California’s worst water quality don’t have it.

The neighborhoods most affected have many things in common. Residents are more likely to be immigrants, agricultural workers, low-income families and Latinos — the people furthest away from our state’s leaders, in both sight and mind.

It is impossible to imagine California’s power structure tolerating unsafe water in Hollywood, Silicon Valley or San Francisco. But when low income communities are involved, there is no sense of urgency.

Local residents are standing up and fighting back. They are demanding access to clean and safe water, a right guaranteed by state law and global standards of human dignity.

They are making progress. With the support of schools, Building Healthy Communities-South Kern and city leaders, community leaders raised money to install more than 70 clean water stations and point-of-use water filters in Arvin, Lamont, Weedpatch and Greenfield. These resources are in use right now at schools and parks, community health centers, the Boys and Girls Club and other community spaces. Each day, thousands of children use them to grab a quick sip of water or to fill water bottles they carry throughout the day.

Installing these filters and safe water stations is an important step, but it is not a long term solution to the region’s water crisis.

To fix this problem once and for all, we must upgrade our water infrastructure at the state and local level. Whenever possible, we must connect residents to the water grid, improve treatment plants and more closely monitor water pipes to ensure they aren’t bringing lead or cancer causing chemicals into our schools and homes.

We cannot wait. Our water crisis should be treated as an emergency because that’s exactly what it is.

The local community is committed to doing its part, but ultimate authority rests with our state’s leaders. They face a stark choice, similar to the decision that confronted Michigan leaders several years ago. Our governor, legislators and water boards can confront the challenge head-on, or they can ignore the evidence all around them, as Flint’s leaders did for so long.

For the sake of our children and the generations to follow, I hope they make the right choice.

Learn More