In the fall of 2021, the Delta Stewardship Council held a series of four webinars focusing on the social and environmental justice issues relating to the Delta, as part of a larger effort by the Council on a new environmental justice initiative.
The first webinar featured Laurel Firestone, a member of the State Water Resources Control Board and co-founder and co-director of the Community Water Center, a statewide nonprofit environmental justice organization based in the Central Valley and Central Coast; and Kristin Dobbin, who recently completed her Ph.D. from UC Davis and is now a postdoc at UCLA’s Luskin Center for Innovation. Their presentation gave an overview of water and environmental justice, discussed the Human Right to Water, and then presented some of the local, regional, and state efforts to implement the Human Right to Water in the state.
“You may have heard the saying that in California, water flows towards money and power,” began Laurel Firestone. “I would say that in California, water is power. Water helps shape every aspect of our lives. It is really intimate; we bring it into our homes and bodies, nourishing everyone we love. Access to water has been and continues to be one of the most powerful drivers in our ability to create wealth, build local economic development and housing, and grow food. On the other hand, water can be incredibly destructive with floods and sea level rise. And water can be fun and soul lifting, lifting us up in joy and connecting us to the power and wonder of the natural world that we’re a part of.”
“So water, like property and wealth, is really a clear and concrete manifestation of our values in our society,” she continued. “The reality is that access to water, or lack thereof, reflects the same fundamental challenges we have in our state, like structural racism, climate change, and wealth inequality. So I’ve always seen water justice work as a concrete way to address these fundamental issues which otherwise can feel really abstract and overwhelming.”
“Access to water is about a whole lot more than just water, and environmental justice provides the framework for naming and understanding those connections,” added Dr. Kristin Dobbin. “California as a state has defined environmental justice as the fair treatment of all people, races, cultures, and income with respect to development, adoption, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. On the ground, we often hear communities and advocates talk about environmental justice in terms of rights, both the right to equal environmental protection as well as the right to live, work, play and pray in communities that are safe, healthy, and thriving.”
Some speak of this as the fair distribution of environmental burdens and benefits. However, how the environment intersects with our social, political, and economic structures is infinite, which means environmental justice is an extremely expansive topic. So the focus of this webinar is on drinking water, and particularly the Human Right to Water. Still, it is just a small sliver of environmental justice and water justice, including important topics around indigenous sovereignty, access to recreation, and much more.
Many people working in environmental justice see the importance of interconnectivity with other structural issues.
“Because water is so connected with our social and political and economic forces, it is both a way that we can tackle those forces through kind of a concrete path,” said Dr. Dobbin. “It is also important to understand that we are all interconnected. So those other movements are continually relevant to the work we do in environmental justice and water justice in California.”
Noting that folks come to this work bringing their own experiences, Ms. Firestone then discussed her experiences that have shaped how she views the state’s role in environmental justice and how that has, in turn, shaped her role as a member of the California State Water Board.
The story of Ducor
Ms. Firestone began her career as a young attorney in the San Joaquin Valley, where she provided legal services to address the water challenges in rural, low-income, and primarily farmworker communities. That’s where she began working with Susana De Anda, the executive director and co-founder of the Community Water Center along with Ms. Firestone.
“Early on, one of the first calls we got was from a mother in the town of Ducor, whose water in her home and at her children’s school was coming out brown and smelled like sewage,” she said. “The local water board not only provided no information on what was going on but canceled all regular public meetings. And when they did finally hold a meeting, the leaders of the water system dismissed the community’s concerns saying that the brown water is ‘just how it is here.’ So we were able to partner with this group of local moms and other folks from the community that were organizing, and we helped provide some support for navigating this byzantine structure of water governance, such as who to call to request oversight and accountability.”
“In the case of Ducor, it turns out that the water systems wells had become contaminated with nitrate; they’ve drilled a new, deeper well, and there they hit manganese and hydrogen sulfide. But after some investigation by the state, it was found that the real issue that was causing the water to be brown and smell like sewage was that the maintenance and operation of the water system was improper. So they were not flushing and cleaning and chlorinating correctly. And fundamentally, no one was enforcing the need to do so.”
This pattern is not unique, she noted; all of us have seen in different contexts that the biggest challenges are needing changes in how we do our job, how organizations and agencies are structured, and how we invest in areas that have been ignored, disenfranchised, or disinvested in for decades, if not generations.
“I like to highlight this because it was my first lesson that even the most tangible and visible water challenges, like the brown water coming out of the tap, are fundamentally human challenges that can’t just be solved through engineering,” said Ms. Firestone. “So today, as a State Water Board member, it’s even more relevant to me that what we need to address our water challenges in the state are really human solutions which require us, not just technology, to solve. And those human solutions require just as real investment, expertise and focus.”
The Human Right to Water
The California Legislature passed the Human Right to Water Act in 2012, which was born out of relentless community advocacy from environmental justice communities and local leaders throughout the state. The goal of the legislation was to challenge the state to affirm recognition of this problem and the right to expect more.
But what does the Human Right to Water Act actually mean or do?
“For one, it declares it a policy of the state which creates new awareness and intentionality,” said Ms. Firestone. “Here in California, it helps us accept that we aren’t yet living up to this promise in our state and that everyone has a right to expect better. It significantly directs state agencies like the State Water Board, the Delta Stewardship Council, or any state agency to consider how to promote the Human Right to Water within all programs.”
However, it’s not a legal cause of action; you can’t just sue to magically create and achieve the human right to water. “Rather, it’s the foundation to do the hard work of living up to this within the many ways that our state takes action, provides oversight, and provides funding. So after establishing this foundation of the Human Right to Water Act, advocates, agencies, and policymakers have to go through the much harder work of developing resources, tools, and programs to achieve this.”
Prior to the passage of the Human Right to Water Act, California was and continues to this day to exist in a state of a drinking water crisis, said Dr. Dobbin. “It’s important to name it as a crisis, even though it is long term. Progress has been made for nearly at least two decades, if not longer, but there are also new challenges that arise that can take us backward or at least can seem to take us backward, although in many cases they might have existed already, and we’re just recognizing them.”
Human Right to Water: Water quality
As of mid-July 2021, more than 850,000 Californians lacked access to safe drinking water as they were being served by 288 water systems which have received a health-related violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act, shown as red stars on the map. Of these systems, 65% serve low-income disadvantaged communities and severely disadvantaged community households.
Dr. Dobbin pointed out that while there are areas of concentration in the San Joaquin Valley, Coachella Valley, and Salinas Valley, this is a statewide issue. She also pointed out that this does not include the 2 million residents who have domestic wells or are on small systems serving a cluster of 5 or 6 households, which are rarely, if ever, tested. The state data on ambient water quality suggests grave cause for concern about the quality of water that these additional 2 million residents are receiving. This makes the number of California residents lacking access to clean water much larger.
Dr. Dobbin pointed out that credible research has been done long-term that shows that drinking water disparities are determined by race, class, and geographic factors.
“For example, we know that arsenic and nitrate disproportionately impact low-income and Latino communities. The same thing goes for lead, which also disproportionately impacts African American communities. And it’s also important to note that no matter what scale you look at these distributions on, you can find the same disparity. So if you’re looking at public schools, for example, like Community Water Center did in a 2016 report, you find the same pattern. Of 1680 public schools impacted by unsafe water, the vast majority were serving Latinx students or serving socially and economically disadvantaged students.”
Human Right to Water: Affordability
Although water quality is a central component of the Human Right to Water, affordability is also important. However, there is much less research and reliable statistics for affordability across the state, partly due to the challenge of defining and measuring affordability and privacy and other constraints on the data.
“But that doesn’t mean we don’t know anything about affordability in this state,” she said. “We know that there are many residents particularly served by small water systems that are paying 10% of their monthly income, if not more, on drinking water alone. Those are rather astronomical costs if you compare that to what an average person, for example, here in Sacramento is paying month to month.”
Affordability and water quality also intersect as the same small systems that most struggle to achieve safe drinking water also struggle to attain affordable drinking water. And if those systems don’t have safe drinking water, residents end up paying multiple times – they pay for replacement water and tap water. And advocates also remind us that they’re paying with their health daily through exposure.
However, affordability is not just a small water system issue, Dr. Dobbin noted. Affordability impacts residents statewide in the large urban areas as well. Throughout the state, residents who live in poverty struggle to pay their water bills, even when those water bills are somewhat reasonable.
“So these two issues, within system inequality, which has to do with wealth inequality, as well as geographic inequalities across the state between systems are both fundamental challenges to achieving affordability,” she said.
Dr. Dobbin noted that affordability had been a challenge before COVID, but the COVID crisis further demonstrated how other social and environmental issues compound these environmental justices. While shut-off moratoriums have generally preserved people’s access, it has resulted in mounting household and system-level water debts.
“The Pacific Institute and the RCAC did a report recently that documents that these impacts are also uneven,” she said. “While most systems across the state experienced a small if any change in revenue, some water systems have lost 30% of their monthly and annual revenue during this period. Similarly, within systems, most Californians are able to pay their bills, even in this time of economic crisis. But almost 10% of Californians were unable to pay their monthly utility bills and have accumulated as much as $38 million in water-related debt.”
Human Right to Water: Accessibility
The third component of the Human Right to Water is accessibility. Access to water is something people don’t talk about much until folks start losing access, such as during drought. Access is another intersecting challenge that transcends water justice, environmental justice, social and political issues.
“In our compounding droughts, we’ve seen so many people across our state lose access to water,” said Dr. Dobbin. “This has really exposed these disparate levels of vulnerability and water security across the state. Since we started keeping track, California has recorded more than 3300 domestic well shortages. We’ve also seen many public water systems lose water supply.”
“It’s important to note that we’re not just seeing inequities in drought impacts, but we see these same patterns of inequities in the plans that we’re working on to address the drought impacts,” she continued. “We can’t just think of this as a natural or environmental issue; this is also a social issue. So as we move as a state to implement water shortages plans and implement groundwater sustainability planning, we see repetitions of the same disparities, from lack of access to water or vulnerability to losing water, replicated in our planning and our solutions to the drought inequities we’ve seen.”
The story of Teviston
Teviston is a small community located in Tulare County that was originally settled by black migrants in the late 1930s and is now a predominantly Latino community with about 100 households. The community relies on a single groundwater well. On June 9, their well went down, and those 100 households, roughly about 700 people, had no water coming out of their tap at all.
This wasn’t the first time this happened in Teviston; the well had failed in 2012 and again in 2017. Each time, the well had been rehabbed, a temporary fix, to bring water back online. The well was once again rehabbed, so by mid-July, Teviston’s well was back online.
“It’s not solving the underlying issue of this vulnerability to water shortage that Teviston has existed with since at least 2012,” she said.
Dr. Dobbin noted that the GSA has a monitoring well right next to the community, and for well over a year before the well failed this summer, the GSA was reporting drastic declines in groundwater in the region. And Teviston is just one example of many communities in the Central Valley and beyond.
These impacts are not just a San Joaquin Valley issue or a Central Valley issue, but certainly touch statewide, she said.
Environmental justice and the Delta
The State Water Board keeps a Human Right to Water list of every community water system consistently failing to meet safe drinking water standards. There are about 300 communities on that list at any given time. And while every region of the state is unique, Ms. Firestone said that none are exempt from these challenges, including the Delta.
About 98 community water systems in the Bay-Delta watershed consistently fail to meet safe drinking water standards already, at least five of which are located within the legal Delta, as shown on the map on the lower left.
The State Water Board also conducted a statewide needs assessment that evaluated 19 different risk indicators around water quality, water accessibility, affordability, and technical/managerial/financial capacity to identify the systems that are at a high risk of failing. The assessment identified an additional 600 community water systems at high risk of failure, in addition to the 300 that are already failing, as shown on the map on the above right. About 218 of the high-risk community systems are located in the Bay-Delta watershed, with significant numbers in the legal Delta.
“These at-risk systems are important because every time we’re able to take a system off the human right to water list of failing systems, we’re seeing new ones come on, so we have to be prioritizing preventing systems from failing if we want to make any progress in this state,” said Ms. Firestone. “Even more fundamentally, this is needed to ensure residents don’t have to wait to have an emergency in order to get prioritized for help.”
In addition, many rural communities and areas with a high density of homes rely on domestic wells, which are the most vulnerable households to contamination, drought, and water supply failures. The map shows the areas with a relatively high density of domestic wells or small water systems, which are not highly regulated and have a high risk of contamination.
“Just based on contamination alone, we estimate that there are about 80,000 households on domestic wells that are at high risk of not having safe drinking water,” said Ms. Firestone. “We don’t know the exact number because there is not comprehensive domestic well testing throughout the state. And, on top of this, there are even more households at risk of water supply shortages. In the last drought and even continuing on today, we are seeing numerous and households go dry. This is true in the Delta watershed, and particularly in the San Joaquin Valley.”
Ms. Firestone noted that implementing the human right to water needs is just one component of broader environmental justice struggles in the Delta. An example would be harmful algal blooms.
“We are seeing large increases in the occurrence of harmful algal blooms in the face of climate change, due to things like hotter, longer summers, drought, less water flow,” she said. “These harmful algal blooms can pose a health risk to people including children and animals, harm aquatic ecosystems, limit the use of drinking water sources and recreational water bodies. They have toxins and odors. And this is really dangerous, in particular, for unhoused individuals who live near polluted waterways.”
It’s also a concern for subsistence fishing households, she noted. “There is a significant subsistence fishing population, primarily in low income and communities of color in the Delta, many of whom eat fish from the Delta more than four times a week. The health effects for people include skin rashes on contact, diarrhea, and vomiting; and if contaminated, harm to the liver, kidneys, or nervous system if toxin levels are really high.”
She noted that there are other environmental justice issues in Delta communities around public access to waterways and natural spaces, other water pollution impacting subsistence fishing and hunting, sea level rise, and flooding, to name a few.
Local, regional, and state responses
Next, Dr. Dobbin and Ms. Firestone outlined specific local, regional, and state responses and actions related to drinking water and the Human Right to Water. They noted that these are broadly applicable responses and strategies to address other environmental issues, whether in the Delta or beyond.
“There is a lot of gloom and doom, but it’s also empowering because we have to know where we are to know where we want to get to, and knowledge is power,” said Dr. Dobbin, noting that these actions are just a few examples of activities happening at the local, regional, and state levels.
Local partnerships have been forming; there are many examples across the state of local communities and households working together. One of the ways this has been happening is through system consolidations, which can be the physical integration of water systems into a more resilient regional system that serves a broader population or sharing personnel and resources across systems that remain operated as separate units.
One example of a consolidation is the Oxbow Marina Mutual Water Company, which was out of compliance with arsenic, affecting the drinking water of 100 households. Ultimately, a local partnership was formed to combine the Oxbow Marina Mutual Water Company system with the Isleton water system. The state provided some funding, but Dr. Dobbin acknowledged consolidations are not cheap.
“These are long-term investments in a sustainable solution that brings to communities,” she said. “It’s not just Oxbow Marina being in a position where they now have compliant drinking water, but both communities are more resilient to climate change and more able to respond to changing conditions together.”
Regional partnerships are also important. Water is a shared resource, and individual households and community access are, in many ways, determined by watershed level activities, whether that’s contamination, groundwater pumping, or management and planning.
“So increasingly, as a state, we’ve been turning towards integrated planning at the watershed level,” said Dr. Dobbin. “We’re doing that through integrated regional water management, groundwater sustainability agencies, and other water quality management entities and coalitions. These are all opportunities to bring users throughout a shared watershed together to kind of plan and build sustainability collectively.”
She also noted that from a drinking water perspective, it is an important cost-effective way to proactively avoid many of the issues that are then having to be solved at the community level, so it is basically drinking water source protection.
There have been a lot of really promising examples from across the state of how regional planning can bolster equitable water access, regional sustainability, economic development, and other things. But Dr. Dobbin pointed out that we can’t expect win-win solutions if all the communities and stakeholders aren’t at the table from the beginning.
“As I alluded to earlier about perpetuating inequalities in our planning responses, we’ve seen that the possibility and the opportunity of regional planning is an opportunity for source water protection,” said Dr. Dobbin. “It also can go awry in the wrong direction when we’re not doing that thoughtfully and intentionally, and integrating drinking water with other water uses.”
Involving communities in water decision making
“There are multiple considerations that lie at the heart of these solutions at the local and regional level, but the key considerations are really the questions of community power and water decision making,” said Dr. Dobbin. “And this goes back to what Laurel started with – that these are human solutions, and it takes us and investing in us. Ultimately, we are not engineering ourselves out of California drinking water crisis.”
“Fundamentally, all solutions start with creating a table and making decisions. And ultimately, we need those tables and those decisions to be representative of all communities that are impacted by water management and water decision making,” she continued. “Those impacted by unsafe water really need to be at the forefront of meeting the solutions in our state to address those challenges.”
Successful consolidations, such as the Oxbow Marina consolidation with Isleton, requires having partners willing to engage in the lengthy process of negotiations and planning to build that type of local resilience. It’s the same for regional partnerships, she noted; regional planning that actually acts as source water protection for drinking water users requires that same type of leadership and collaboration and buy-in at the regional level.
Dr. Dobbin noted that research shows that our water governance structures have a long way to go to realize the vision of inclusivity and representation. “We’ve seen research from UC Davis and UCLA demonstrate that people of color and women are kind of systematically underrepresented in drinking water decision making. The same thing goes for looking at groundwater sustainability agencies, for example, or integrated regional water management groups, which have been heavily dominated by agricultural water agencies.”
“But at the same time, we see a lot of programs and initiatives across the state that are changing that trend. For example, Community Water Center has a Community Water Leaders Network, and Self Help Enterprises has developed a Rural Communities Water Leadership Institute. These different initiatives around the state to empower community residents themselves to sit at these decision-making tables has resulted in leaders at the local, regional and state level, such as the SAFER Advisory Board.”
“So to sum up, it is this local power that enables the local and regional solutions that we need, which is also really tied to the state policy solutions that we need. The Human Right to Water was only made possible by decades of committed organizing. And the same thing goes for the passage of the 2018 Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Program.”
State level response
“The only reason that we have the passage of the 2018 Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Program is the continued relentless advocacy by folks at the grassroots level,” said Ms. Firestone. “It is perhaps the biggest example of state-level responses on how to work to achieve the Human Right to Water in California, and to really build equity and resilience in the face of climate change.”
The Safe and Affordable Funding for Equity and Resilience Drinking Water Program (or SAFER) aims to provide safe drinking water in every community for every Californian. The program formalizes and integrates work that the Water Board had been doing for a long time and also creates the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund with $130 million per year for ten years to fund drinking water projects primarily in small disadvantaged communities, she said.
“That funding is intended to fill funding gaps and leverage and provide a more direct link to much larger pots of infrastructure funding, which are exceeding a billion dollars but tend to pass by those communities that need it most,” said Ms. Firestone.
There are several components to the program. One of those is an annual needs assessment, which identifies systems at high risk of failing and the households on private wells at high risk of contamination. In addition, the Water Board has set up an advisory group that is working through community engagement processes and local implementation processes to guide how the funding is spent.
“We have an annual fund expenditure plan that lays out priorities and helps to target and prioritize how we’re investing state funds,” said Ms. Firestone. “We’re providing technical assistance providers to help communities develop projects, both to address immediate needs, as well as build resiliency. And that is critical for making sure that communities can get to the point of being ready to accept larger infrastructure funding. As a result, we are to a much greater degree proactively prioritizing communities with investments and technical assistance rather than waiting for them to come to us.”
“Rather than supporting only those that are able to navigate our complex government funding processes, we are really doubling down on both incentivizing consolidations and the structural changes to shift on this fragmentation and segregation of communities into different small water systems. We have new powers to mandate consolidations when that’s the only feasible alternative. So by proactively identifying, prioritizing, engaging, and investing in communities that have been disinvested in for decades, we really see this as a model of how we can bring and begin to dismantle the reality that race and income are predictors of access to safe water in our state.”
Ms. Firestone then concluded with some thoughts on bringing equity into our work, no matter what level we work on in water resources.
“We first need to recognize that the reality is there is a very explicit history of racially motivated deprivation of a central infrastructure,” she said. “Places like Ducor were explicitly targeted in the Tulare County general plan to withhold basic infrastructure investment, like funding for water and sewer for over 30 years – that was explicitly in the plan – among other communities that were targeted. There’s also racial annexation, racially exclusive zoning, and purposeful denial of funding and investment. So these are all very real dynamics that shape what our communities and community infrastructure look like today.”
“In order to begin to dismantle this structural racism, we have to intentionally bring equity into our goals and strategies within each of our actions and programs and projects, whether at the local, regional, or state level,” Ms. Firestone continued. “A few of the ways we can do that is to start with examining and intentionally looking at what are disproportionate impacts within our programs, actions, or projects that otherwise we may not have seen. Then, to develop approaches, we need to meaningfully engage, support and transparently collaborate with impacted communities. So this means making sure that there are seats at the table and authentically valuing community expertise.”
“This takes proactively planning and preparing for emergencies with vulnerable communities, and prioritizing investment in environmental justice and frontline communities to address harm and provide some of that resiliency and safety net and building resilience for climate change, which we know will continue to exacerbate the challenges we see today.”
“So we’re hoping that some of the examples we talked through today have made those approaches more concrete. For all of us working in the water sector, we need to bring this to the core of what we do. And if we don’t, certainly as state agencies, we are exacerbating, or at best perpetuating, these race and socio-economic disparities. So we all have an important part to play. And it can’t wait. It’s urgent; it’s real.”
QUESTIONS & ANSWERS
QUESTION: Does the Human Right to Water Act have teeth behind it? Or is it a principle that rather agencies should consider and try to base their rulemaking on? And it seems that the Water Board has brought the Human Right to Water into the work that’s being done. Have you seen examples of that happening in other agencies?
Ms. Firestone: “This is a really common question, does the human right to water act have teeth? And, like anytime you can pass a law or adopt something, what matters is implementation. And so how I see the Human Right to Water Act is that it is the foundation on which we build really meaningful implementation, and the implementation is what matters.”
“There’s not a cause of action where you can say, I’m going to sue somebody, and I’ll get some outcome magically. The reality is that no matter what, what matters is implementation. So what we’ve seen with the Human Right to Water is that it is that foundation; it does provide that intentionality and requirement on agencies to bring that into their actions, decisions, and investments, and that’s really where the rubber hits the road.”
“Different agencies have done this in different ways and at different paces,” Ms. Firestone continued. “Because the State Water Board oversees drinking water providers and provides the main drinking water funding in the state, we were the first ones, and very clearly this as a focus and priority for action. But even that, it doesn’t actually have teeth until we adopt those guidelines for funding and are taking deliberate actions to ensure that we’re doing that. As for other agencies, DWR is developing more processes around this. The other agencies that aren’t primary agencies for funding and regulating drinking water, it’s been more of a process for them to see what their roles are, but I think that’s beginning to accelerate.”
QUESTION: My understanding is that water agencies are constitutionally prohibited from providing lifeline water rates or subsidies to low-income residents. What has been done to rectify the situation?
Ms. Firestone: “That’s prop 218. Our constitution does have this restriction on local agencies that they can only charge the cost of service in their water rates. But there are ways that local agencies can address equity within their water rates. A number of them are doing this through a couple of strategies. One is lifeline rates for a basic amount of water, so they have a low cost for initial water and then have increasing tiers over time. Another is by being able to establish low-income assistance programs. Oftentimes, the publicly-owned agencies that have been able to do this have some creative ways of using other sorts of funding. And there are also other ways that water systems have been able to do this; they have been able to look at how they’re defining water service and bring payment plans and customer assistance programs into the overall cost of service.”
“This is an area of high attention; we are providing a lot of money in debt forgiveness right now, and I think it’s an example of hopefully what will become a statewide program where that can be funded over time. And this is really an issue for local agencies that are publicly-owned; it’s not for the privately-owned utilities which are actually required to provide subsidized water rates for low-income residents.”
Dr. Dobbin added, “About the human right to water, requiring implementation, and about constraints, whether they’re Prop 218, or others – this is where that leadership piece comes in. Ultimately, water provision is a mainly local issue across the state. And this is where we do see local leaders taking the impetus to act on the human rights water and embody that vision. And we also see local leaders being creative and how they work around barriers to accomplish that.”
“The question is if the Human Right to Water focuses on state agencies, and in its language, it does,” Dr. Dobbin continued. “But our point about leadership and community power is that we will never get to the accomplishing the Human Right to Water with just the agencies taking this on, because ultimately, water provision is local, it’s regional. And these questions of not shirking responsibility but accepting that we all have a role to play in implementing the Human Right to Water. I don’t think we’re there yet. But that’s where we need to go with local and regional leadership.”
QUESTION: Can you speak to California’s antiquated historic water rights system, which the commenter says are no longer viable in the 21st century. What are your thoughts on what we can do to revise or update the water rights system to center equity and justice?
Dr. Dobbin: “I think the point is clear and increasingly obvious to everyone in the water sector. Our water agencies and our public and private districts across the state represent a history of systemic racism and discrimination. When we go to implement different things – for example, a lot of my research centers on the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, and that foundation replicates itself. We have seen this kind of across the board in many of our programs. That isn’t an answer to what the solution is. But I think we have come a long way in recognizing that these root problems really do have to be addressed. I don’t have the solution, but I think we have many examples across the water sector to show that this history of water development in the state is part of our problem and part of what we’re grappling with day today.
Ms. Firestone: “At the Water Board right now, we’re really leaning into having to implement the water rights system like never before, in the face of drought with curtailments. It does seem to me, as new to the Water Board and administrating the water rights, is how much our system is built to fail, and how much we need to be looking at how to bring both bring equity into the system but also bring the ability to navigate this new reality with climate change as we also look at how to address these fundamental inequalities in our state.”
- Human Right to Water, webpage and resources at the State Water Resources Control Board
- SAFER Drinking Water Program, webpage at the State Water Resources Control Board
- Human Right to Water, report and webtool from the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment