Mobilizing Community Support and Political Leadership for Systemic Governance Changes: An Interview with Susana De Anda

Susana De Anda, along with colleague Laurel Firestone, formed the Community Water Center in 2006, in response to the landscape of unsafe and unjust water conditions that they observed throughout the San Joaquin Valley of central California.  Since then, the Community Water Center has worked with at least 80 low-income communities to help them improve access to safe, clean, and affordable water. The organization has grown from its original office in Visalia, to now include offices in Sacramento and Watsonville.

We recently spoke with Susana to learn more about the organization’s work, and what she sees as the biggest needs in the communities they represent. The interview was conducted by our collaborator, Lynn Broaddus, over phone.

EPIC: Tell us about the Community Water Center (CWC).

SDA:  About 13 years ago, we identified the need for an organization fully focused on safe water and founded the CWC.  The infrastructure that delivers drinking water in so many poor communities is old and dilapidated. It costs a lot and delivers bad water. There is plenty of research showing that if you have low income or are a person of color, you'll have contaminated water and pay the highest rates in the state of California. People of color feel that they’ve been forgotten, and they sense the injustice.

We work on four challenges: Ensuring that

  1. Drinking water sources are not contaminated;
  2. People have adequate information;
  3. Water utilities have the institutional capacity to be properly run, and
  4. Decision makers are representing community needs – This is what we call the "social infrastructure" of water, and it’s the hardest challenge.

EPIC: What kind of work did CWC take on in its early years?

SDA: Early on, our work was to organize, working with impacted residents. We did a lot of education around water quality. We found that they didn’t trust their tap water, but they didn't know why. We learned that they weren't getting adequate information.  Because they didn’t trust their water, they'd boil it, but this was exactly the wrong thing to do if the water has nitrates or other chemical contaminants.  We also worked statewide to highlight the drinking water crisis.

EPIC: Can you tell me about the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund that California passed this summer?  How did it come to be, and what will it do?

SDA:  The passage of the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund was a huge victory for our base. In 2012, California became the first state to pass a bill declaring that access to water is a human right. That was an important step, but we still didn’t have the funding to make access to safe water a reality. Our low-income families are paying $90 to $100 per month for water contaminated with nitrates, 1,2,3 - TCP, arsenic, chromium, uranium. On top of that they’re also paying for bottled or vended water. These water systems are in a bind: they have no funding for operating and maintenance, but if they raise rates, they are likely to drive away customers. We needed to create a sustainable permanent fund to help fix the problem.

EPIC: What had to shift to get the Safe and Affordable Water Fund passed?

SUSANA: It was a shift in politics. We were unsuccessful in 2018. Then, in early 2019, on Governor Newsom’s fourth day in office, we took him to one of the communities we work with. He didn't want to overpromise, but he understood the issue and wanted to do something. This summer he signed the bill in an impacted community, in a home, which was amazing. The fund is a huge victory. It will help with short-term, temporary solutions as well as funding for the long-term needs.  It will not, however, help us with the wastewater issues.

EPIC: What are the sources of contamination for these communities?

SDA: The Central Valley relies mostly on groundwater. Much of the groundwater contamination is from agriculture: nitrates: chemical fertilizer, and animal waste. There are also leaky septic systems. In many of the places that have nitrate problems, they dig deeper wells, which is where arsenic, radium, other naturally occurring but harmful heavy elements are more concentrated. Communities that rely on surface water often have problems from over-chlorination.  And keep in mind that we only know about the things we test for.

EPIC: Are the people living in the most impacted communities primarily agricultural workers?

SDA: We are working on figuring that out.  California’s Human Right to Water Portal shows a map of systems that are out of compliance. They closely track California’s agricultural region. It includes a lot of unincorporated rural communities which started as seasonal agricultural labor, the shift to year-round crops means that those towns are now year-round. Some of these were also used as Japanese concentration camps. We work in these forgotten places. They tend to be where low-income farm workers live, but even small cities are experiencing these problems. During the drought some cities had two years without water.  There were completely inadequate temporary solutions in some places. The city of Porterville became part of a long-term solution. Many homes with dry private wells connected to the city’s public system.

EPIC: Is the CWC taking on electoral work?

SDA:  Part of changing power is to make sure that elected officials represent the peoples’ needs. We've been training people to run for local water boards and now we've added the Community Water Leaders Network which is focused on creating resources for people on water boards and making sure that they have resources and training.  We help them learn how to read a budget, create an agenda, and read legislation. We have 22 members currently.  We believe that giving communities power will require more progressive leaders.

Our analysis of the region’s water boards found stagnant leadership, and that water board members rarely get challenged in their election.  If we want to make change, we need to change the leadership. Last year, we started a 501c4 organization which was able to support and endorse candidates, and our candidates were elected. We also run civic engagement programs, especially working with Latino, low-propensity voters.  We’ve found that their lack of electoral participation is not because they don't care. It's because the election process is flawed.  The more we know about the population, the more we can design engagement programs for them.

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