Water as a Human Right
Host Angela Glover Blackwell with US Water Alliance CEO, Radhika Fox and Susana De Anda of the Community Water Center.
More than two million Americans live without access to clean, running water or a working toilette at home. Millions more predominantly in places like Flint, Michigan, the Navajo Nation, and migrant farmworker communities in California’s Central Valley have been disproportionately affected by high levels of lead and arsenic in the water. In this episode of Radical Imagination, host Angela Glover Blackwell speaks with US Water Alliance CEO Radhika Fox about solutions to this national water crisis. We also hear from Susana De Anda, Co-executive Director of the Community Water Center, about the fight for clean water in California’s Central Valley.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (00:05)
Welcome to the Radical Imagination podcast, where we dive into the stories and solutions that are fueling change. I'm your host, Angela Glover Blackwell. Today we explore the water crisis in black, brown and indigenous communities and the bold strategies to fix it. The episode was recorded before COVID-19 hit, but the topic is more relevant than ever. We're told again and again to wash our hands. But how do you do that when you don't have safe running water or any running water at all?
"America has the cleanest air and water in the world. We'll continue to use natural forces". '"We don't have the cleanest air and water in the world."
Angela Glover Blackwell: (00:46)
Many Americans think that access to clean water is a problem only in the developing world, but more than 2 million people in the United States live without access to clean running water or working toilet at home. Millions more struggle with the hazards of old and crumbling infrastructure, lead in pipes, high levels of arsenic in the water and dysfunctional sanitation systems.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (01:12)
In 2015, the country's attention turned to Flint, Michigan.
A growing crisis and Flint, Michigan, everyone who drank the water and entire US city is at risk, terminated by toxic levels of lead poisoning children in the community.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (01:26)
And last year, the environmental protection agency found dangerously high levels of lead in the water in Newark, New Jersey.
So there's a lot of anger here in Newark, New Jersey about the water situation. Thousands of residents are getting. T.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (01:38)
here are also communities in the deep South, the Navajo nation parts of the Texas Mexico border and in California central Valley that are struggling to get drinking water. In a 2019 report, closing the water gap in the United States, the nonprofits U S water Alliance and Dig Deep found that race is the strongest predictor of who's likely to become vulnerable in the nation's water gap. To talk more about this, we're joined by Radhika Fox. She is the CEO of the US Water Alliance based in Oakland, which co-authored the report. Radika, welcome to Radical Imagination.
Radika Fox : (02:17)
Thanks for having me, Angela, tell us when the idea to do this comprehensive report about water in our state came about.
Radhika Fox : (02:24)
Well, you know, the US water Alliance had been working on the intersection of race, poverty and water systems really after the Flint water crisis, and really trying to make the case for the nation about why all people need safe, clean access to water. And when we were doing that first phase of research, that was really mostly about urban communities. We came across this report from 2000 that said that 2 million people in this country were living without flushing toilets, and drinking water in their home. And it was number that really haunted us. Uh, how could it be the in a nation of such abundance, two million people were still living without the basics. So how did you go about doing the research? We worked with Dig Deep, which is a organization that had been helping create water access solutions and the Navajo nation.
Radhika Fox : (03:18)
We also partnered with Michigan state university and they were the ones that had done this report called still living without the basics in 2000, that looked at that population. And then with those partners, we first tried to understand what does the census and other federal datasets tell us about who lives without water? And we really understood how limited that information was and that there really was nothing out there that talked about the lived experience for people. How do they cope when they don't have this basic access?
Angela Glover Blackwell: (03:50)
And when you say lived experience, what exactly do you mean?
Radhika Fox : (03:54)
Well, some of the things that we saw in these communities were just unacceptable. For example, in the Navajo nation, people who were, you know, spending $200 a month on gasoline, just to truck water from miles and miles away, or some of the communities in Appalachian are spending over a hundred dollars a month on bottled water.
Radhika Fox : (04:16)
So that is the lived experience of people.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (04:19)
So let's go a little deeper there. Who are the people who are most effective and for how long have they been affected?
Radhika Fox : (04:26)
Well a couple of things that we found through this research. Um, one is we know that race is the single biggest predictor of if you're going to have access to water or not. This is not surprising. So Native Americans are the most impacted. They are 19 times more likely than White people to live without plumbing, safe drinking water, wastewater service. In the deep south, that is another significant hotspot community where African Americans in particular are impacted. There the really big challenge is one, they're still on septic systems and those septic systems aren't regulated and it is then impacting the groundwater that is then their drinking water source. Obviously poverty is also very much co-related to this issue. We actually found that folks in these hotspot communities that we looked at were living on average on $10,000 to $30,000 a year. And one thing that was I think really surprising to us is that there are actually some communities in this country where we're actually seeing some backsliding, places that had access and didn't any longer, whether it was because wells were running dry, groundwater had been so contaminated and so some of these backsliding communities were in places as diverse as Delaware, Idaho, Kansas, South Dakota.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (06:02)
What are some of the solutions that you lay out in the report in order to address this lack of access?
Radhika Fox : (06:08)
The solution has to actually be fit for purpose for the community that we're talking about in India and Africa. There are a lot of community centered solutions, for example, uh, several families pooling together for a joint wastewater system, so that they'll be able to process that. And then the second thing is we have to deploy resources differently right now, the federal government makes resources available for very centralized infrastructure in places where the built environment already exists. But in some of these other communities where they're either very small systems or there's no water systems at all, we need technical assistance resources that can go out there and support them.
Radhika Fox : (06:55)
The other thing is we have to build community power to both advocate for solutions to collect the data in their communities and call for the types of investments these communities need. I think one of the most inspiring examples of that that we saw in our research was the work of the Community Water Center in the Central Valley of California where they started really with engaging with residents whose wells had been running dry, their groundwater had been contaminated, but actually they knew that they had to leverage their community power for state policy change -- and they did. The other set of recommendations we talk about in the report is really around collaboration. I think it's so easy for us to think about this is the water problem, this is the housing problem that people face, this is the lack of transportation that people face. But actually we have to look at those challenges that lower-income people, communities of color face together. And so for example, IUDA was one of the community partner organizations in Texas and they're actually working on water and they're working on housing together.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (07:27)
That's terrific to know that there really is a pathway, but in 2019, California passed the safe and affordable water fund that will provide one point $4 billion over the next decade for clean water projects. Could you talk more about how this money will be spent and what it will mean for water equity?
Radhika Fox : (07:48)
Well, this is one of the biggest wins that we have seen in water. So right now, as far as what it will mean, there is a steering committee and advisory group that's currently being established that will set priorities for what investments will be made. But I think we know this is going to really make progress in the state because one of the things that the fund does is it's calling for grants, not only loans, so that especially the most impoverished communities who can't actually repay loans will be able to access these funds in a way that's been unprecedented in California. But we're still very early, right, in the proces
Angela Glover Blackwell: (08:36)
How are you reframing the conversation about water, because you and I both know that how you frame it has so much to do with how people see their interests in finding a solutions. I was just curious about that.
Radhika Fox : (08:50)
Yeah. We really try to frame water as the medium to achieve all the other things that people care about and want in their lives. What is more important than water? So I think part of the framing is it's not about water. Water is the medium for all the other things. We want every community in this country to have.
Radhika Fox : (09:12)
Those of us who get involved in change. And I'm fortunate enough to meet so many people who are doing it. They end up really tapping into their super power. When you think about that radical, what's your super power? Oh my goodness. I think my super power is to help people see themselves in whatever the issue is at hand and get them really excited and galvanized around something.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (09:45)
Thank you for talking to us Radhika.
Radhika Fox : (09:47)
Thank you. Angela.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (09:50)
Radhika Fox is the CEO of the US water Alliance based in Oakland. She joined us from our studios in Berkeley, California coming up on Radical Imagination. We hear about a community's fight for water in California, central Valley. Stay with us more when we come back
Call to Action: (10:27)
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Angela Glover Blackwell: (11:17)
And we're back. California, the largest economy in the country still can't provide clean water to nearly a million of its residents. In recent years, impacted communities in the state central Valley have organized to demand their right to clean water. To talk more about this. We're joined by Susana De Anda. She's a long time community organizer in the central Valley, and she is the cofounder and co-executive director of the Community Water Center in Visalia, California. Susana, welcome to Radical Imagination.
Susana De Anda: (11:47)
Thank you. Glad to be here.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (11:49)
What's the Central Valley like. A lot of people when they think of California, they think of the Bay area, they think of Los Angeles. the central Valley, I think, is the fastest growing part of the state. And what's going on there? What is life like?
Susana De Anda: (12:02)
I've got to say the Central Valley is definitely the heart of the state. It's the place where we grow a lot of food across the country. As a matter of fact, until area County, we're the number one milk producing County in the world that said, we also have these injustices that are throughout the entire central Valley, where hardworking families are having to work and live in areas where they're exposed to daily contaminants communities, where we have no sidewalks, no basic necessities like public parks, community centers. And we don't have access to safe drinking water. And many of our communities that are made up of low income people of color and there's cases that state that if you're low income and a person of color like myself, and if you live in the central Valley, you're going to have higher chances of being exposed to toxic water.
Susana De Anda: (12:49)
I'm talking about communities are having to pay some of the highest rates for water. They cannot drink. And on top of that have to buy bottled water. And I work with many mothers who have to worry that their children don't drink the water they use to brush their teeth, because they worry they're going to get sick.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (13:04)
Now you were the cofounder of the Community Water Center, but before that happened, it took a lot of groundwork to really get a sense of the magnitude of the water issues in the Central Valley.
Susana De Anda: (13:15)
Could you walk us through how this all began early on as an organizer? I was reading a lot of water quality reports that said that residents were exposed to things like nitrates and nitrites were linked to cancer. The blue baby syndrome, when a baby that's six months old, ingests high levels of nitrates into their bodies, the blood literally is unable to observe oxygen. So the baby turns blue. There was other contaminants like arsenic. As I was reading these water quality reports, I kept thinking, what, what is this? Do people even know what this is? And what, what are the health impacts that can affect folks?
Angela Glover Blackwell : (14:01)
How far back do the water issues go?
Susana De Anda: (14:04)
You know, unfortunately the conditions that we're faced with have been here for a long time early in my career, I got myself the copy of the Tillery County general plan. And these planning documents that every County needs to update every year are really an important to review. And to ensure that well, the update them, they continue to invest proper resources into our communities. So while I was looking throughout this document, it hadn't been updated since 1971. It took me by surprise. When I came across the public liquid and waste management element of the general plan that basically said that little or no public commitment was going to be given to 16 communities that the County deemed to have no authentic future. And as I read this policy, I realized like, Oh, the conditions that we're seeing in our, where they're not having access to reliable, safe drinking water was very intentional because at least in the Tillery County general plan, they specifically said that. And they actually implemented this policy. I went door knocking and I would ask folks, do you drink your tap water? And they would say, no, I don't drink it. And I would say, well, why not? And it was the common answer from a lot of folks. And they would just say, we don't drink it because we don't trust it. And it was clear to me that access to good information was one of the biggest problems. And as we started to organize community by community, I quickly understood within a year of the campaign that this issue was frankly widespread. And every community needed to have access to good information on water quality. And most importantly, what residents could do about it to change that reality in their communities. And it was not a coincidence that while I was learning that folks did not have access to safe drinking water, that a lot of the infrastructure was old and dilapidated and was leaking because we can actually see weeds growing where the pipeline was busted. And I went into our communities and I said, look, there's a document that says that you have no authentic future. And so therefore there's not going to be any public infrastructure funding to upgrade the infrastructure. Do you think that's okay? And of course residents said, no, it's not, okay.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (16:21)
And in addition to doing the organizing, you were also doing research and collecting data. What were some of the most revealing or surprising pieces of information you were able to come across?
Susana De Anda: (16:33)
One, we quickly realized that the actual entities that many of our communities work in were the same entities that were polluting our drinking water. And that would mean that we needed to regulate their bosses or the entities that they worked in to protect and prevent further contamination into our groundwater. While at the same time, making sure that our residents weren't going to get laid off or targeted specifically, one of the major contaminants that we're seeing in the central Valley are nitrates. And their three main sources of nitrates are coming from chemical fertilizer, animal manure and leaky septic tanks. So when that happens and our residents are relying on the local economy of agriculture, it was really important that we would work with the regional water board in this case, the regulator to ensure they understood that they needed to stop and prevent further contamination of our groundwater sources.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (17:30)
Well, let's talk about impacted residents. How did the people react to the information you laid in front of them?
Susana De Anda: (17:37)
You know, I can tell you that people were making the connection and they were very grateful to be given the opportunity to even talk about this. And specifically I've had the luxury of working with leaders. And one major leader was Lucy Hernandez who has been a mother, a grandmother, a mentor in her community of West Goshen. She was having to deal with poor drinking water, the inspiration for her to say, you know, I want to be part of change. So we got in communication and she became the first Latina, local water board president for her water company.
Susana De Anda: (18:19)
And she helped access resources to be the first community to receive a grant, to be provided bottled water. But it really shows that ordinary residents, moms and grandmothers can make a lot of change. And this woman, this amazing activist has been part of change most recently, where her grandchild and her grand babies have been in the state Capitol marching with us to ensure that we would pass the safe and affordable drinking water fund this year.
Susana De Anda: (18:49)
And Lucy was part of that journey. And she was with her mother, her daughter, and her grandbaby, marching qué queremos, What do we want? Clean water, our Olympia. She would say when cuánto, we would say now Ahora, it was a beautiful thing to see how the generations of her activism continues. And she's a great role model for that.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (19:28)
What do you think makes these communities unique in terms of how they've mobilized to demand that basic right.
Susana De Anda: (19:34)
For me, the uniqueness is that ordinary residents who have to work out in the fields with over a hundred plus degrees, still make the commitment to come to our meetings. And for them, there is no excuse. They have a long day of work and they still come to our meetings. And if they have to take time off of work, they will do that because they believe that access to safe drinking water is a basic human right.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (19:59)
I think that people who work for change, bring everything, they've got to it, including their super power. What's your superpower?
Susana De Anda: (20:04)
My heart, I'm passionate. I understand the crisis and I want change.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (20:10)
Susana, thank you for speaking with us.
Susana De Anda: (20:12)
Thank you, Susanna.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (20:15)
Susana De Anda is the cofounder and co-executive director of the Community Water Center in Visalia, California.
Angela Glover Blackwell : (20:34)
COVID-19 has laid bare when equity advocates and communities of color have always known - structural racism affects everything in society, including something as basic as water. I find it stunning that the US does not recognize water is a human right, and that people, children must go to the street to demand it. America must seize this moment of societal disruption to reinvent our inadequate and unjust water systems. Let's reimagine how we value water and manage it wisely and sustainably to serve all people in communities now. And for generations to come
Angela Glover Blackwell: (21:21)
Radical Imagination was produced by the Futuro Studios for PolicyLink. The Futuro Studios team includes Marlon Bishop, Andrés Caballero, Ruxandra Guidi, Stephanie Lebow, Julia Caruso, Leah Shaw, Lita Hollowell, and Sam Burnett. The PolicyLink team includes Rachel Gichinga, Glenda Johnson, Fran Smith, Jacob Goolkasian, and Milly Hawk Daniel. Our theme music was composed by Taka Yusuzawa and Alex Suguira. I'm your host, Angela Glover Blackwell. Join us again next time, and in the meantime, you can find us online at radicalimagination.us. Remember to subscribe and share.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (22:10)
Next time on Radical Imagination.
To the people of Baltimore. And the demonstrators are across America. I heard your call for no justice, no peace.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (22:20)
Transforming the criminal legal system. That's next on Radical Imagination.
The Futuro Studios team includes Marlon Bishop, Andrés Caballero, Ruxandra Guidi, Stephanie Lebow, Julia Caruso, Leah Shaw, Lita Hollowell, and Sam Burnett. The PolicyLink team includes Rachel Gichinga, Glenda Johnson, Fran Smith, Jacob Goolkasian, and Milly Hawk Daniel. Our theme music was composed by Taka Yusuzawa and Alex Suguira.