Celebrating World Water Day: Leave No One Behind

Creative Commons, Jim Holmes, AusAID

The motto for 2019’s #WorldWaterDay is “#LeaveNoOneBehind”. California community leaders and environmental justice advocates strive to do just that by securing the human right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking, and sanitary purposes. At the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, we are proud to support them: 

Leadership Counsel for Justice & Accountability- Leadership Counsel @LCJandA, in coalition with PolicyLink, analyzes the conditions and raises public awareness of the water and sanitation service inequities suffered by communities living in unincorporated areas of California. They’ve developed tools with maps of under-served communities, water quality reports, demographic data, and expert interviews to inform policymakers of high priority areas for extension of services and funding necessary to implement the human right to water. 

Clean Water Action
Clean Water Action leads an NGO Groundwater Collaborative that offers technical solutions and pathways to meaningfully engage communities in the management of rural groundwater basins. As a first step, participants are preparing sustainable management plans, taking a deep dive into preparing for climate resilience, pollution mitigation, supply sustainability, habitat protection, and more. Get involved!

California Public Interest Research Group
CALPIRG has launched a statewide campaign to track and improve policies to remove lead from water in schools. They’ve worked with parents, teachers, and administrators to identify solutions to elevated lead levels in schools in our largest urban regions. Find their recent report grading lead regulation compliance across schools here.

UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation
Faculty, students, and community members @LuskinCenter are developing a comprehensive water system assessment to identify the vulnerabilities of wealth poor communities in L.A. County. The assessment builds off a multi-year study revealing severe fragmentation of governance, reliance on contaminated source waters, and significant disparities in rates across the region. It will provide water systems and policymakers a tool to share resources and maximize improvements in drinking water delivery. Follow their progress here

Why hasn’t California, the world’s fifth largest economy, achieved the human right to water yet? Despite the amazing work of our partners over a million people are deprived of this right every day in California. Numerous stressors contribute to this failure, not least of which is climate change. It’s important to explore the structural challenges that are at the root of this problem: fragmented water systems, lax regulation, and aging infrastructure. 

There are over 3,000 regulated drinking water systems (ie. agencies or districts) in California. Of those 3000, approximately 400 urban retailer water systems serve 90 percent of residents and nearly 2,500 smaller utilities serve less than 10 percent of residents. A nationwide study identified two-thirds of small water systems responsible for water quality violations.

Small water systems are inherently disadvantaged due to the size of their customer base and staff. A smaller customer base provides fewer revenues on which to draw for system integrity often resulting in delayed or neglected capital improvements. A smaller staff provides less capacity to identify problems, find solutions, marshal and compete for funds. 

Lax Regulation
Widespread pollution has fouled more than 90 percent of our source waters nationwide, rendering groundwater and surface waters too polluted for drinking, fishing, or swimming. 

Water systems’ failure to comply with laws is a symptom of inadequate oversight. Despite municipalities’ authority, they allow numerous polluting businesses to operate unaware of their obligations to protect water sources. A 2015 study in the Compton Creek watershed of Los Angeles found that only 1 in 3 industrial facilities identified themselves to water quality regulators. This suggests considerable under-reporting of polluted discharges to groundwater basins.

When enforcement occurs, state regulators almost exclusively do so through administrative actions, failing to deter polluters. For example, of the 3,271 storm water violations identified by regulators in 2013-14, 99 percent were handled with informal warnings. 

The result of lax oversight in California is that more than 20 million people drink water from contaminated groundwater sources, which require costly treatment. Where a person lives and how much money they have can determine whether they get clean drinking water. Even where water is treated, basic delivery becomes unaffordable for many, with some families spending up to 10% of their monthly income on water.

Aging Infrastructure Exacerbates the Cycle of Poverty
In 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s water  and wastewater infrastructure “D” and “D+” grades, respectively. The American Water Works Association estimates drinking water systems need to invest $1.7 trillion in infrastructure over the next 40 years to meet legal standards. However, without breaking from historic patterns of growth that result in health and wealth disparities based on zip code, we will deepen the divisions that plague society. Rising water rates and fees are already deepening that divide by charging poorly served, disadvantaged communities disproportionately high rates. Those rates are already outpacing the Consumer Price Index

The good news is that our partners are already identifying where and how to relieve the burdens of historically under-served communities. Progressive water systems are exemplifying how they can come together to create efficiencies in drinking water and wastewater services that #LeaveNoOneBehind. And, local and regional government are leveraging their assets to make 21st century water management both sustainable and equitable. 

Last updated April 10, 2019

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