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:

Bill Watch: Asm. Perea on the 2012 Human Right to Water package

It will take both short-term and long-term solutions to ensure that all San Joaquín Valley residents have access to clean and affordable drinking water. The 2012 Human Right to Water bill package, which is currently making its way through the legislature, could establish some of those long-term solutions.

Last week, I spoke with Assemblymember Henry T. Perea, who is the author of two of the bills in the package.

“It took decades of bad policy and poor oversight for these communities to get where they are today, and it is going to take some time to fix those problems,” Perea told me.

One of Perea’s bills, AB 1669, would create a ‘Nitrate At-Risk Area Fund,’ which would be used to develop and implement solutions for low-income communities that are at risk of nitrate contamination. These communities would be identified by the state Department of Public Health and the state Water Resources Control Board.

The bill would prioritize funding for areas contaminated with nitrates, and reduce the bureaucratic hurdles that prevent smaller communities from taking advantage of existing funds, Perea said. It targets an ongoing challenge to implementing drinking water solutions, Perea said: there is “always more need than there is resources,” he said.

A recent University of California, Davis study found that about 254,000 people in the southern San Joaquín Valley and Salinas Valley are at risk of nitrate contamination of their drinking water.

Another bill, AB 2238, would promote consolidation of small water systems or infrastructure extension, when these actions can help improve access to safe and affordable drinking water in disadvantaged communities.

Specifically, it would improve the ability of Local Agency Formation Commissions (LAFCOs) to identify and study opportunities for consolidation and service extension. It would also require the state department of health to promote consolidation, prioritize funding for projects involving consolidation of small water systems, and prioritize funding for consolidation projects that promote safe and affordable drinking water.

Instead of having small water districts serving nearby communities, “we would like to see the larger water districts take in those service areas to create greater efficiency,” Perea said. This, he said, would save taxpayer money, and would create economies of scale, so one community does not get left behind.

Both of Perea’s bills are expected to reach the Appropriations Committee in mid-May.

Other bills in the Human Right to Water package include:

  • AB 685, by Assemblymember Mike Eng (D-Monterey Park,) which would establish the human right to water as a statewide policy priority;
  • AB 2334, by Assemblymember Paul Fong (D-Cupertino,) which would require the Department of Water Resources to conduct an analysis of water affordability every five years;
  • AB 1830, by Assemblymember V. Manuel Pérez (D-Coachella,) which would authorize the Public Utilities Commission to order restitution to mobile home park residents where it finds that the park owner charged unjust or unreasonable water rates.

Drinking water, previously on Harvesting Health:

2011′s top community health issues

Well friends, another year of investigating community health in the San Joaquín Valley is coming to an end.

Below are my picks for the Valley’s top five community health issues/trends of 2011. What did I miss? What issues were important to you this year? And what would you like to read more about next year? Let me know in the comments section below!

1. San Joaquín Valley’s contaminated drinking water grabs international attention

In March, a United Nations independent expert visited the tiny Tulare County community of Seville, where she learned about San Joaquín Valley residents’ prolonged fight for affordable and clean drinking water.

The visit was part of a 10-day tour through the United States that included stops in communities that have limited or unequal access to safe drinking water and sanitation services.

Her report, presented to the U.N. this fall, did not mince words when describing those communities — including numerous unincorporated, majority Latino communities in Tulare County — that have been marginalized and excluded from this basic right.

“While these groups comprise a small proportion of the population, the independent expert emphasizes that they need priority attention,” she wrote. The agricultural San Joaquín Valley is “experiencing enormous challenges, particularly nitrate contamination, with regard to drinking water.”

Water advocates hoped the U.N. report would shine a bright light on the Valley’s drinking water challenges, which disproportionately impact Latinos, and help them advocate for the Human Right to Water bill package, which was making its way through Sacramento.

It all must have made an impact. In October, Governor Brown signed the Human Right to Water bill package, which is intended to ensure that communities across the state have access to clean, affordable drinking water.

2. Poverty increases

Though the great recession officially ended in June 2009, Latinos across the country continued to struggle with poverty and food insecurity in 2010, government statistics showed this fall.

Nationwide, 26.6 percent of all Latinos in the United States lived in poverty in 2010, up from 25.3 percent in 2009, according to statistics released last week by U.S. Census Bureau. The poverty rate for whites was 13 percent in 2010.

California’s overall poverty rate — at 16.3 percent in 2010, up from 15.3 percent in 2009 — was above the country’s overall rate, 15.1 percent in 2010. In Fresno County, 20.9 percent of residents lived below the poverty line, according to the 2005-09 American Community Survey, the most recent data available.

In the Valley, the increase in poverty was evident at the Fresno Rescue Mission Emergency Family Shelter, where more and more families were seeking shelter after they had lost their job or home.

It was evident outside of Catholic Charities in September, when a husband and wife – both with degrees in social work – waited in line to receive food from the Neighborhood Market food distribution. (After I blogged about this couple, the woman was offered a job at Catholic Charities.)

And it was evident in November, when possibly hundreds of people were evicted from downtown Fresno’s homeless encampments. Two of the people I interviewed had landed on the streets when the money they made working in the San Joaquín Valley fields and packinghouses no longer covered the rent.

3. School food tops the menu

As child obesity – as well as poverty and food insecurity – has increased across the state and nation, more attention has been focused on the meals students eat while at school.

This winter, I reported on the trend of schools using innovative methods to ensure students eat breakfast.

 Studies show that breakfast increases kids’ health and improve their academic achievement. Also, teachers report fewer behavioral problems and higher attendance rates, school nurses see fewer students complaining of stomach aches, and school districts benefit from federal meal reimbursements.

And thanks, in part, to the efforts of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, schools began removing chocolate and strawberry milks from their school cafeterias. Los Angeles Unified School District last week became the largest school district in the nation to ban chocolate and strawberry milk from school menus, and Valley districts – including Earlimart, in Tulare Count – have also stopped offering flavored milk.

Is all this attention on school nutrition making an impact? I’d like to say ‘yes,’ but a recent Los Angeles Times story reports that L.A. Unified’s “trailblazing introduction of healthful school lunches has been a flop.”

4. Health reform provides benefits – and challenges

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act won’t be fully implemented until 2014, but the San Joaquín Valley is already experiencing ups and down from the law.

The Affordable Care Act designates funds to support the ongoing operations of community health clinics, create new health center sites in medically underserved areas, and expand preventative and primary health care services at health center sites, according to HealthCare.gov.

A sizeable portion of that money has been funneled into the medically underserved San Joaquín Valley. It’s hard to keep track of all the money coming into the Valley, but I’ve started tracking it in this blog post.

But preparing for the implementation of the Affordable Care Act has also proven challenging for Fresno County. In September, the county board of supervisors voted 3-2 to withdraw the county’s Low Income Health Program application from consideration by the State Department of Health Care Services.

With the vote, the county became the first in the state to withdraw its application for the program, which was intended to help counties prepare for the expansion of Medi-Cal that will come with the implementation of the federal health care law in 2014.

5. Residents, experts approach environmental justice seriously and scientifically

As I reported this summer, people of color have become the state’s strongest environmentalists, since they are most burdened by environmental pollution, and the resulting health problems.

So this fall, it was neat to hear about two projects that are comprehensively measuring just how badly residents are burdened by pollution.

In Arvin – a farmworker community that has been considered one of the smoggiest cities in the nation – residents have kicked off a two-year, community-led air monitoring project, or “bucket brigade.”

And UC Davis researchers just released a three-year study that analyzes every census block in the eight-county Valley, and assigns each one a numerical score for environmental hazards, based on the most recent data reported to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and another score for its social vulnerability, based on recent U.S. Census data.

In the new year, both projects could be great tools for communities advocating for health and environmental justices.

From the archives:

File photos by Rebecca Plevin and Daniel Cásarez.