Opinion: State Water Agreement is a Victory for Health Equity

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In a major victory for health equity, California lawmakers recently signed off on a state budget trailer bill that will fund improvements to the state’s drinking water system. Gov. Gavin Newsom is expected to sign the bill sometime next week.

As the director of health equity at the Prevention Institute, I applaud the frontline communities and policy advocates like Community Water Center, Clean Water Action, and Leadership Counsel who fought to win this victory for health and human rights. I appreciate the action of our lawmakers. 

Moving forward, we have an opportunity and an obligation to build on this agreement by addressing the barriers that confront small water systems that often have the most difficulty delivering safe, clean water. As advocates and organizers work to ensure that investments go to the communities with greatest needs, the public health community has the responsibility to step forward and align itself with the struggle for water as a human right.

Elva Yanez

From the San Joaquin Valley to southeast Los Angeles, Californians turn on the tap to find contaminated, foul-smelling, or discolored water—or no water at all. Experts estimate that well over 1 million Californians are exposed to unsafe water in their homes, schools and communities. The health consequences range from acute illnesses to miscarriages, stillbirths, and birth defects; many types of cancer; depression; fatigue; and other chronic conditions.

Fortunately, for the vast majority of Californians, our large water systems provide us with clean and safe water. But, disproportionately, California’s communities of color—from southeast Los Angeles County to the Central Valley’s farmworker communities—are most likely to go without access to safe, clean affordable drinking water due to contamination. These communities often have inadequate, underfunded and poorly maintained water systems, as well as other issues like decrepit plumbing in multi-unit rental housing.

Contaminated water often goes hand-in-hand with contaminated soil and polluted air, as in the Central Valley, where the people who grow and harvest much of the food we eat often face exposure to toxic pesticides, struggle to afford healthy foods for their own families, and end up buying bottled water because their taps have run dry or the water that flows from them can’t be trusted.

In urban areas, communities with a history of industrial activity or hazardous waste storage often still rely on groundwater even though it has long been contaminated. This means the water coming out of people’s taps is sometimes brown and bitter tasting, making it for all practical purposes undrinkable.

Water is a fundamental determinant of health. That’s why it’s such important news that the governor and legislature agreed to establish ongoing funding to make sure every resident in our state has access to clean, affordable water. According to the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund Coalition, the investment will equal at least $1.4 billion over the next 11 years.

So, what’s next?

  • Support innovative local policy and systems change solutions: For example, the state can facilitate the complex issue of consolidation of water systems. There are over 3,000 independent water utilities across the state, and smaller utilities often have the most difficulty delivering clean, safe water. Another idea is for local jurisdictions to provide incentives for landlords to repair or replace dilapidated plumbing in older, primarily rental housing, another source of degraded drinking water.
  • Support and listen to frontline communities: We need to listen to communities who live on the frontlines of California’s water crisis. That means investing in community capacity. We need to ensure that community organizations that work on environmental justice receive funding to support their work on water issues, in particular for community organizing, advocacy and conducting community-based participatory research.
  • Improve data collection, research and documentation of water-related health inequities: We need to analyze this data from a public health perspective. That means focusing on populations that are most negatively impacted by water safety issues and creating relevant, accessible data to pinpoint impactful strategies to prevent harmful exposures. We need to change policies and systems to support health.

In July 2010, the United Nations recognized that access to clean drinking water and sanitation are essential to the realization of all human rights. California recognized this human right in 2012—now it’s time to realize it. 

Elva Yañez is the director of health equity at Prevention Institute, a national nonprofit with offices in Oakland and Los Angeles.

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