Water contaminated with dangerous nitrates and arsenic. Failing pipelines and wells running dry. Families spending their hard-earned money on bottled water because they can’t trust the tap. Susana De Anda has come across all this and more in California’s San Joaquin Valley. It’s part of what she calls the state’s “huge secret” — the fact that more than 1 million Californians lack access to safe drinking water.
De Anda first began digging into the Golden State’s water crisis as a community organizer back in the early 2000s. She was reviewing water quality reports for Tulare County — the Central California county where she lives — when she realized that unsafe water wasn’t the exception, but rather the norm. And in parts of this majority-Latino, agricultural region, where more than 20 percent of the population lives below the poverty level, the government had no plans in place to improve the situation. That’s when she knew she needed to start a nonprofit to tackle the problem head on. So, in 2006, she and her colleague Laura Firestone — then an attorney with the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment — co-founded Community Water Center, with the mission of bringing clean and affordable water to all Californians.
“We really believe clean water is a basic human right, and it should never be a privilege,” De Anda says.
Community Water Center has since made its mark in the fight for water justice. On the legislative front, it helped pass a law that will provide $1.4 billion in funding over 10 years to address unsafe water exposure among low-income Californians, and played a critical role in advocating for the statewide moratorium on water shutoffs during the Covid-19 pandemic. It is now working to re-instate a limit on chromium-6 in water, among other things. At the local level, the organization provides technical assistance on water-treatment options, coordinates a grassroots coalition of impacted residents, directly distributes water to those in need, and much more.
In 2016 De Anda was recognized as a White House Champion of Change for Climate Equity for her work helping low-income Californians navigate the last drought. Her passion for this work was palpable as she spoke with me about why we all need to understand our own water quality, why people of color are most impacted by unsafe water, and how it’s time to start thinking about long-term drought resilience in California.
How did you first become interested and involved in environmental and community organizing?
I would have to say, you know, being a first generation Mexican American Latina raised by two beautiful parents — I was born in Salinas, Monterey County — I was really brought up with this notion of always helping my community, helping my family, sharing resources.
Sixteen years ago, when I realized how many people didn’t have safe drinking water in Tulare County, CA…
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