Everyone in California knows there’s a drought. We read about it in the news, we see dramatic photos of dry riverbeds, we marvel at the lack of rain.
Less visible, though, is another problem—a big problem. A problem that has endured through both wet and dry months, a problem that will not be fixed by rainstorms or water conservation. A problem that should not exist in a wealthy state in a developed country.
Over 21 million Californians live in 682 urban and rural communities that rely on contaminated groundwater as their primary source of drinking water. Among these people, millions live without access to safe and affordable water. It is difficult to convey the gravity of this situation in writing. “No access to safe water” may seem like the typical environmentalist catch-phrase and might cause your eyes to glaze over. But stick with us so we can paint a picture for you.
If you live in one of the many areas of California that lacks basic public services, it is likely you regularly face these conditions:
- Your tap water has unsafe levels of lead, arsenic, nitrates, and other pollutants in it, making it dangerous for you and your family to drink or cook;
- Showering causes you to break out in rashes and large clumps of hair to fall out;
- Your house is not connected to sewer lines, so septic tanks overflow and back up into your toilet and shower; and,
- The streets outside your house don’t have adequate storm drains, so when it rains, polluted water floods the streets.
Toxic water has economic consequences as well. Families and communities are forced to purchase bottled drinking water at high prices and to pay exorbitant fees for sewage disposal. Additionally, environment-related health problems may lead to missed days at work and mounting medical expenses.
Recently, Colin Bailey, the executive director of the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water spoke at the “California Drought Roundtable” event at the Brower Center about the grassroots effort to prioritize access to safe water. He explained how government inaction and lack of enforcement of existing laws are a form of environmental discrimination. He described how communities and tribes from across the state banded together to lobby for the Human Right to Water Bill (AB 685), which, after much opposition, finally passed in September 2012. However, the government has done little since then to move forward on improving conditions for people without safe water in California.
The smart policy talk these days is about “integrated water planning” or “not waiting for emergency responses.” We’re all for that. We agree that we need water policies that are integrated with energy policy and other “soft responses” like drought-tolerant gardening and conservation. But integrated also means abolishing the oppressive system of haves and have-nots that currently exists in our state. Integrated means that every human in California, regardless of ethnicity, immigration status, or home location, can turn on the tap and drink clean, healthy water. As California lawmakers create new policies and strategies to deal with the drought, the people living in a perpetual “clean water drought” should be at the top of the agenda.
For more, watch this 2 minute video.