RISING VOICES: Building Water Trust: Nuestra Casa Tackles Water Justice in the Bay Area

In our regular Maven’s Notebook Q&A, the Water Hub checks in with advocates in California to talk about water issues impacting local communities. This month, we spoke to Rosa Nelson at Nuestra Casa about advocating for water equity and running safe drinking water programs for communities of color in the Bay Area.

Tell me about yourself and your role at Nuestra Casa.

Rosa Nelson (RN): I’m the Water Justice Program Coordinator at Nuestra Casa in East Palo Alto. I’m originally from Chico and just graduated from St. Mary’s College in June. The Water Justice program is relatively new at Nuestra Casa, I’m excited to work in the Latinx community here. In my role, I focus on strengthening partnerships with the community and water experts to advocate for equitable and clean water for East Palo Alto water partnerships for water quality testing and drought education. This summer, we’ve conducted 50+ water quality tests within the community, which helps us to know which filters to provide residents with. There is distrust towards tap water in the community so we hope to help them understand what’s in their water. A GIS map to share with residents, funders, and the city is in the works too. That evidence and data will help us find and fund solutions.

What’s your relationship to water? 

RN: My first half of undergrad, I really saw myself working in the fire industry. However as luck would have it, I got into a coastal wetlands research program — it changed my trajectory because I fell in love with working in water and environmental justice. The need to focus on water equity and serve low-income communities really is something I am passionate about and feel is so important for the health and strength of our communities. 

What water issues are top-of-mind in your community right now?

RN:  Education, Resources and Infrastructure. Water quality tests are showing that poor water quality might be a result of outdated pipes. When copper comes back on the testing, it can be an indication that there is erosion in the pipes but it’s expensive to get pipes fixed or replaced. Getting funding for these types of projects can also be complicated. Residents want to learn more about their water and how they can provide safe and clean drinking water for their families. Some of the complaints we’ve received are in regards to groundwater, gray water, unusual smells, and hard water causing skin and hair issues. 

How does Nuestra Casa support environmental justice? 

RN: We have an Environmental Justice (EJ) academy where community members get educated about issues affecting EPA, California, the county, and the world. With their new education and awareness program, EJ graduates are able to get more involved in their communities because the barrier to entry is eliminated by providing a stipend for participation. 45% of participants in the water testing program were past EJ academy participants. Past EJ academy members have even gone on to be consultants and participants in the water justice team!

What water resources or policy changes do people need most in the community you serve?

RN: Water in East Palo Alto is a very intricate subject matter. In general terms, our communities need infrastructure improvements such as new pipes as well as assistance like water filters. We are also pursuing additional funding to collect tap water data to build up civic engagement in the community and advocate for better water quality. 

What stories do you think are missing in water media coverage? 

RN: Water equity stories. So many people know about Silicon Valley and the boom in tech that has created so much wealth, but people rarely hear about the communities who have been passed over by the tech boom. Water equity issues in Silicon Valley specifically show that 75% of our residents drink bottled water because of a distrust of the safety of their water. I think these are stories that need to be covered. 

Anything else you want to share?

RN: I’m not from the community I serve. I am so grateful to have been accepted by the community and those I work with. I don’t want to take ownership for the work the community has done to get to this point in advocacy. However I am so grateful to be here! 

What’s your happy place?

RN: The ocean. Anytime I’m at the ocean or outside, it calms me. It’s where I go sometimes when I have a lot to think about.

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