Celebrating the Right to Water

Last week, Gov. Jerry Brown last week signed AB 685, known as ‘The Human Right to Water Act.’

The bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Mike Eng, makes it state policy that every person has access to safe, clean and affordable drinking water. The law requires state agencies — like the Department of Water Resources, the State Water Resources Control Board, and the Department of Public Health — to consider this position when making a water policy decision.

On Monday night, during the monthly meeting of the Community Water Center’s community group AGUA, residents who can’t drink their tap water and their allies recalled their efforts to support and pass the bill.

Residents and their advocates spent several years traveling to Sacramento and sharing their struggles for clean water with legislators, they said. They offered the legislators plastic bottles of their communities’ drinking water and dared people to sample the ‘San Joaquín Valley Kool-Aid,’ they said, laughing.

They recalled that their lack of access to clean, affordable drinking water made international news in March 2011, when the United Nation’s Independent Expert on the Human Right to Water and Sanitation visited the tiny Tulare County community of Seville.

The bill’s passage, they agreed, was cause for celebration. So, a mariachi band played everyone’s favorite songs. Chairs were cleared away so people could dance. There was so much food and cake.

Vida photographer Daniel Cásarez’s photos capture the joy and camaraderie of the evening.



To learn more about AB 685, read ‘California takes historic step in safe water for all,’ in this week’s edition of Vida.

Drinking water, previously on Harvesting Health:

Latinos y la Tierra: One last look

During the month of April – in recognition of Earth Day - Vida en el Valle ran a four-part series called Latinos Protecting la Tierra.

The five people featured in this series are true environmental advocates. They are proof that California residents can make an impact on the environmental health of their communities.

Three of the five people were farmworkers, or children of farmworkers. Two of the five have college degrees. They have organized people to fight for health and environmental justice; demanded health-protective laws and actions; and created policies that protect health and the environment for the long-term.

Here is one last look at the people featured in the series.

Lupe Martínez

Organizes residents around environmental justice, as the Assistant Director for Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment in Delano

“Our communities here have been forever told they can’t do anything… and they don’t have the power. That’s not true. When people come together, things happen.”

- ‘His cause is well grounded,’ April 4

Celia García

A community leader in Mecca, where a horrible smell from a nearby facility sickened kids and residents

“This is where I live, and this is where my kids live, and this is where I want my kids to grow up. I want to make sure that my kids and my community and I have the same opportunity to live in a place where we have the chance to be happy and healthy, just like the people on the west end of this Valley do.”

- An advocate blooms in the desert, April 11

Verónica and Joanna Mendoza

Culter residents and community leaders in the San Joaquín Valley’s fight for clean drinking water

“It is unjust that people pay twice for water.”

- Mamá e hija luchan por agua potable, April 11

Assemblyman V. Manuel Pérez

Representing Eastern Riverside and Imperial counties

“I just hope that when this is all said and done, and I look back at this, I can say that we did some great work, and we brought our work and our community closer to justice. I can die with that. I’d be fine with that. I’d be cool.”

- Assemblymember is driven by justice, April 18

Annie Loya

A youth leader in the fight to shut down a facility in East Palo Alto, and now executive director of Youth United for Community Action

“We were the underdog community of color, fighting this multi-million dollar company that was pretty much nationwide. Here we were, highschoolers, trying to bring down this company, and finally after so much advocacy, so much press, so many meetings, so many technical documents — we won.”

- Annie Loya’s environmental journey, April 25

Have you followed Latinos Protecting la Tierra? What did you think of the series?

Residents to EPA: “We’re simply telling you our reality”

On the second day of his two-day tour through the San Joaquín Valley, EPA regional administrator Jared Blumenfeld visited the east Tulare County communities of East Orosi and Seville.

Standing in the driveway of an East Orosi home, Blumenfeld listened to the personal stories of community residents like Berta Díaz, in pink, who has fought for more than a decade for clean drinking water.

“I have fought with mis compañeros for eleven years, and we have not seen any change in this very contaminated water,” Díaz said.

“We are not complaining, we’re simply telling you our reality,” said Jesus Quevedo, pictured at right, as he described the health struggles of family and friends who have been sickened by the poor water.

“I’ve been having to growing up not being able to drink my tap water, which I think is something that’s not really right,” said Jessica Mendoza, 16, pictured above, at left. “All I’m asking for is just a change, because it is not just for my generation, but generations that are yet to come.”

From there, Blumenfeld traveled to Stone Corral Elementary School, where he addressed residents, including Rebecca Quintana, pictured below.

“I really wanted him to visually see what really exists,” Quintana said after the short community forum. “There is a difference between hearing and seeing. I actually wanted him to see with his own eyes what communities and their infrastructure look like.”

Hearing about residents’ personal struggles to access clean drinking water, and seeing their determination to bring potable water to their communities, seemed to leave an impact on Blumenfeld, pictured below.

“You can read statistics,” he said. “But when you meet someone with a name and a face and a child and a house – it is definitely why we all do this job. Our job is to protect human health and the environment.”

That was the reaction María Herrera, of the Community Water Center, was hoping for.

“Anyone can read about the problem… but it is one thing to read it, and it is another thing to be able to come to the actual communities that are impacted by the issue and hear directly from residents,” she said. “That makes a huge difference.”

Read more about Blumenfeld’s tour:

All photos by Daniel Cásarez, Vida en el Valle.

VIDEO: Water distributions in the Valley, and how you can help

UPDATE: Read ‘Water bottles ease woes,’ which ran in the June 8 edition of Vida en el Valle.

The first of a series of water donations took place last Friday morning in Monson, East Orosi and Seville – three unincorporated Tulare County communities with a history of contaminated drinking water.

During the first distributions – organized by the Community Water Center, Food Link, and Feeding America - about 200 families gratefully accepted 24 gallons of bottled water per household.

The 24 gallons of water each family is receiving through the donation is a very short-term solution to a long-term problem, said María Herrera, community outreach coordinator for the Community Water Center. For residents of these communities — who have lived for years with contaminated drinking water — the donated bottled water might last just one, or two, or four weeks, she said.

The distributions will help raise awareness of the need for potable water in all Valley communities, and is an opportunity to educate residents about the quality of their water. Still, Herrera’s reaction to the distribution project was bittersweet.

“I shouldn’t have to be doing this in California,” Herrera said. “It’s kind of unreal.”

More water distributions are expected to occur in the next week or so in about 15 more low-income communities in Tulare, Fresno and Kings counties that have a history of contaminated water – and CWC is still accepting donations to support this distribution.

Watch the video below to hear Maria Herrera, of the Community Water Center, describe the need for safe, affordable, accessible drinking water in San Joaquín Valley communities. She also invites people to donate to the project.

Donations can be sent to:

  • Community Water Center, 311 W. Murray Ave., Visalia, 93291
  • Food Link, 7427 W. Sunnyview Ave., P.O. Box 1544, Visalia

Read more about the water distribution in this week’s edition of Vida en el Valle.

Video: Meet an Environmental Justice Champion

UPDATE: Read more about Becky Quintana in this Vida en el Valle story.


“Do you want clean water or dirty water?” Becky Quintana called out from her kitchen, in a joking tone.

For an hour or so, Quintana, a resident of the tiny Tulare County community of Seville, had been telling me about her fight to improve the drinking water quality in her neighborhood and in communities throughout the San Joaquín Valley.

She spoke with such passion that it was no surprise she needed to gulp water – from a bottle of Aquafina. (Seville’s water, which courses through 100-year-old pipes, has high levels of bacteria and nitrates.)

For her passion and dedication to improving drinking water quality in San Joaquin Valley communities, Quintana has earned the 2010 Environmental Justice Champion award from the U.S. EPA, Region 9. She is expected to receive the award on Thursday in Los Angeles.

That’s just one of the many ways Quintana – a member of the local group, Committe for a Better Seville, and the Community Water Center organization AGUA – has been recognized for her water advocacy efforts. She was recently profiled in the Los Angeles Times, interviewed by the Today show, and is scheduling an interview with the BBC.

Maria Herrera, community outreach coordinator for the Community Water Center, said Quintana deserves all of these recognitions.

“I’ve know Becky since late 2008, and I have really seen her transform into this incredible community activist that is not just fighting for basic things for her community, but also for the many communities that are in the same situation that Seville is,” Herrera said.

Watch the video below to hear Becky Quintana explain, in her own words, why she is dedicated to fighting for clean, safe, affordable drinking water for San Joaquín Valley communities.

Do you know an environmental justice champion in your community? Describe the champion in the comments section, and I’ll try to feature him or her in an upcoming blog!

Day 2 of the #SowChange tour

On Day Two of the Women’s Foundation of California’s Sowing Change 2010 tour, we began in Visalia and visited Seville, Matheny Tract, Lamont and Weedpatch. Read more about the tour, and about Day One of the tour.

  • Stop 1: Seville

“This shouldn’t be happening here in California and the United States – this is something that happens in a third-world country,” Seville resident Becky Quintana said Thursday morning, as she told the Sowing Change tour participants about the undrinkable water in her tiny Tulare County community.

Seville’s water is contaminated with nitrates and therefore unsafe to drink, Quintana said. The community’s water infrastructure is old and dilapidated. Sometimes the water goes out for days, and sometimes sand comes through the shower and toilet.

Still, Seville residents pay $60 each month for water they can’t drink, she said, and an additional $40 or $50 for drinking water.

Quintana, a local school board member, took us to Stone Corral Elementary School, where the students can’t drink out of the faucets. The school has set up water jugs in every classroom, and outside in the schoolyard.

Quintana is a member of the Visalia-based Community Water Center, which fights for access to clean water through organizing, education, and advocacy.

“If you drink water, you’re a potential ally for change,” Susana De Anda, co-director of the water center, told the tour participants.  “We need water t0 live – we have to respect that life source.”

  • Stop 3: Lamont and Weedpatch

So often, people complain there is nothing for young people to do in the Valley’s rural communities. It’s when youth have nothing better to do that they get into trouble.

Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers, brought up this issue during a discussion about prison reform. She said Latino youth would be much better off working in the vineyards then selling drugs in the streets.

We saw an awesome example of the power of active and engaged youth during our visit to Lamont. Camila Chávez, executive director of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, showed us a mural that youth have created, with the help of a local artist.

Not only does the mural brighten up the streets of the community, which is home to 13,296 people, 88.9 percent of who are Latino, it also prevents other people from tagging the wall with graffiti.

The mural is just one aspect of the great work the Dolores Huerta Foundation in the Kern County communities of Arvin, Lamont and Weedpatch, and the Tulare County communities of Cutler-Orosi, Woodlake and Lindsay, to get disenfranchised people involved in civic participation. Along with the mural, the foundation’s community organizing work has also resulted in a Boys and Girls club, a pool, sidewalks, and stop signs.

To read my tweets from the Sowing Change tour, click here. Follow me on Twitter at @HarvestHealth.

Welcome to Harvesting Health!

Hi, and welcome to Vida en el Valle’s new community health blog, Harvesting Health/Cosechando Salud.

This blog is part of a new reporting project, funded by the California Endowment, that will allow Vida en el Valle to spend a year zeroing in on critical health issues that are impacting Latino communities across the San Joaquín Valley.

In stories in our paper, readers will meet the Valley residents affected by community health issues — like exposure to pesticides, access to clean drinking water and healthy air, and the need for safe communities and healthy food. Readers will also meet the community groups advocating for change at the grassroots- and policy-level.

The in-depth stories will also include a public policy perspective: What policies have created these unhealthy situations? What can local or state decison-makers do to fix these problems?

This blog will add even more depth to the stories. Bookmark this page, and check back  often to view videos of Valley residents and community activists, and to learn about health issues as we’re investigating them.

Why is Vida en el Valle dedicating so much time and newsprint toward community health issues?

Because Valley residents are hit on all sides by health and environmental factors, and the poor and people of color are often hit hardest. And because without media attention, conditions like these could persist:

  • The Bakersfield, Visalia-Porterville, Fresno-Madera, Sacramento, and Hanford-Corcoran metropolitan regions rank in the top ten in the American Lung Association’s State of the Air 2010 rankings for most polluted cities by ozone, year-round particulate pollution, and short-term particulate pollution.

According to the association, minorities and lower-income groups are disproportionately affected by illnesses caused by air pollution.

  • In 2006, more than 326,700 Valley residents were served water with levels of contamination over a legal limit, primarily due to bacteria, nitrates, arsenic, and disinfectant byproducts, according to the Visalia-based Community Water Center.

Latino communities are more likely to have contaminated water than non-Latino communities, the center says.

  • The San Joaquín Valley is home to more than 220 diasdvantaged, unincorporated communities. In these communities, where residents rely on the county government for services, people tend to lack the basic features of a safe and healthy environment, like clean water, sewage lines, storm drains, streetlights, and sidewalks, according to the national research and action institute PolicyLink.

And, because as EPA regional director Jared Blumenfeld put it when asked why he has prioritized environmental justice issues in the San Joaquín Valley, “(The Valley) is a part of the world that deserves attention, and hasn’t gotten the attention it requires.”

These community health stories, blogs, and videos won’t be effective without your input. What health issues are you experiencing in your communities? What types of health improvements do you envision for your neighborhood?

Share your thoughts with Vida en el Valle’s community health reporter via e-mail (rplevin@vidaenelvalle.com), by commenting on this blog, www.blogs.vidaenelvalle.com/health, or by following us on Twitter (@HarvestHealth.)


To read more about this new project, check out next week’s edition of Vida en el Valle.