Community Water Center report details the danger in the lack of accountability for those in charge of a community’s most necessary resource
By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN
VISALIA – In 2012, Governor Jerry Brown signed the Human Right to Water into law making California the first state to recognize that access to safe, clean, and affordable drinking water is a human right.
Yet six years later, more than one million residents are exposed to unsafe drinking water each year and over 530,000 Californians pay a bill for water that does not meet state and federal drinking water standards each month. A disproportionate number of those residents live in the southern San Joaquin Valley, where 109 local water boards oversee the water quality and quantity delivered to homes and farms. These democratically-elected boards normally consist of five board members who make decisions on the drinking water of small communities and the water supply for small farms.
Of those local water districts, 87% of board members hold uncontested seats, according to “Untapped Opportunity: Local Water Board Elections and the Fight for Water Justice.” The report was released earlier this month by Community Water Center, a Visalia-based environmental justice group whose mission is to act as a catalyst for community-driven water solutions through organizing, education, and advocacy.
Susana De Anda, co-founder and co-director of Community Water Center, said these public boards shape water management in a region where hundreds of thousands of residents lack reliable access to safe and affordable water. In many rural communities, these boards represent the only form of elected officials to which they have direct access. When only one candidate runs for a local water board seat, the election does not take place and they appointed in-lieu of election. In Fresno, Kern, Kings, and Tulare counties, 75 of 109 local water boards studied have not held a single election in the last four years.
“These local water boards are foundational in the fight for safe and affordable water,” De Anda said. “That they’re uncontested speaks to an opportunity to reshape local democracy in this state.”
The first-of-its-kind report studied a range of special districts that provide drinking water to residents, as well as non-drinking water to farms, dairies, and other entities in the four Valley counties. In Tulare County there are 35 drinking water districts and 19 non-drinking water districts. Drinking water districts include California Water Districts, Public Utility Districts, Sanitary Districts and, the most common, Community Services District. Non-drinking water districts include water conservation districts, resource conservation districts, and, the most common, irrigation districts.
In Tulare County, only 5% of current board members ran in a contested race and 1% of seats were vacant. In one extreme case, the seven seats on the Ivanhoe Irrigation District board of directors were all appointed in-lieu of election, meaning there was only one candidate running for each seat.
“Water is life,” said Pedro Ramirez, of the California Labor Federation. “This research adds critical perspective to the growing calls for civic engagement at the local level. These water boards are the most local form of government, and the communities they represent need accountable and representative leaders.”
Beyond water provision, these boards set water rates, fund infrastructure projects, and shape plans for long-term local and regional sustainability. Charlotte Weiner, the report’s author and program fellow with Community Water Service, said families in Alpaugh drive 40 miles to buy clean water because the water that runs through their community’s pipes is laced with arsenic. And now directors on the Alpaugh Community Services District are faced with the notion of raising water rates in order to treat their water, even though many residents can’t afford their bills now.
Weiner also points out that research out of the UC Davis has raised questions about the disconnect between those holding seats on the boards and the people who they are elected, or in most cases, appointed to represent. A 2013 PolicyLink study found that 65% of the San Joaquin Valley’s low-income, unincorporated community residents were people of color. Yet according to a forthcoming California Civic Engagement Project report on local water boards in the southern San Joaquin Valley, in early 2018 fewer than 15% of board members were Latino. The disparities deepen in non-drinking water boards, where only 3% of board members were Latino — and no board members were Latina. Weiner said this is a problem because those meetings may not be translated in Spanish and their materials, such as agendas and information packets, may not be available in Spanish.
“These are kind of like the city councils in these communities, but these meetings may not be accessible to the people they are serving,” Weiner said.
This Saturday, April 14, the Community Water Center will host a hands-on workshop to teach residents how to run for a seat on their local water district board. The workshop will help residents understand board director duties and responsibilities, requirements for candidacy and the process for applying as a candidate.
It will also connect those interested in running for office with those already part of the Community Water Leaders Network (CWLN). The network was formed 10 years ago to ensure board members have the resources, information, support and opportunities they need to implement water solutions at the local, regional, and state levels. As members, the Community Water Center provides them with a monthly bilingual newsletter, conference calls to connect with each other, crowd-source questions and receive updates and information.
But representation is just one half of the solution to water quality in rural counties. The other is funding. Weiner said Lemon Cove has an active group of directors on the Lemon Cove Sanitary District, yet its 300 residents pay monthly bills for nitrate-contaminated water. Many of the families cannot afford to pay their bill and to purchase bottled water, too.
“In some instances they are talking about raising water rates by $15 per month,” Weiner said. “They may not sound like a lot but it makes a big difference over the course of the year. These folks are also low-income so they are making trade offs between buying their kids clothing for school or paying to have water in their house.”
There are even communities that were able to find funding to solve their water quality issues, only to find they couldn’t afford the real costs later. The 600 people living in Lanare west of Hanford were able to find obtain funding to build an arsenic treatment plant. Unfortunately, the ongoing maintenance of the facility put the community more than $100,000 in debt and forced them to shut down the plant more than a decade ago.
“These communities don’t have the economies of scale to spread out those costs over a large population,” Weiner said. “There is money for capital improvements but not for ongoing costs, such as repairs and maintenance.”
But there may be soon.
In January, Governor Brown included a trailer bill creating a Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund in the state’s budget. Weiner said the fund, which may include a few million in the first year, would make state funding available to subsidize water rates in rural districts as well as fund one-time repairs or ongoing maintenance of treatment plants. The language for the bill was taken from Senate Bill 623.
Introduced by Senator William Monning from Santa Cruz last year, SB 623 would have assessed a fee of $0.005 per dollar for all sales of fertilizing materials and $0.01355 per hundredweight of milk from payments made to producers for milk and $0.95 per month on every water bill except people with incomes 200% below the poverty level, with all of those funds going into a Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund. The bill received broad support from environmental justice groups such as Community Water Center, but also from agriculture groups, County supervisors and city councils throughout the Valley. The bill was held in the Assembly Rules Committee and was lost amidst negotiations for much more controversial issues but now has a chance to offer real solutions for unincorporated communities struggling wither poisonous water.
“It couldn’t be more important than right now to have board members that are active and engaged,” Weiner said.