Generations of Californians have taken for granted how water is engineered to enable the grand agricultural nature of this state.
Now our water system suffers from severe drought and reduced snowpacks. The Colorado River is in peril. Wells are going dry. Water is getting contaminated. Land is losing value. People are losing livelihoods.
Such dilemmas are exacerbated in disadvantaged communities. Large Central Valley growers overpump water from wells in direct violation of the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. Meanwhile, families in farmworker towns go without clean and affordable water. They still pay high water bills while resorting to bottled water to cook, bathe and drink provided by government, nonprofits and labor unions.
Consider the harsh reality of a Coachella Valley Latino mother bathing her small children in water laced with arsenic. Families living in trailer parks need water filters in kitchen and bathroom sinks and showers to avoid contaminants – while working on luxury Palm Springs golf courses nearby where water usage is not a concern.
To remedy these inequities and avoid water catastrophes, Water Education for Latino Leaders, or WELL, has educated 650 elected and appointed California leaders on water issues for a decade through conferences and forums. Disseminating information empowers constituents to make correct decisions.
An array of recommendations – from conservation to desalination – will prepare California for future water shortages. The federal government wants to reduce California’s share of Colorado River water. In recent years, officials scaled back water shipped from Northern California rivers to the Central Valley and Southern California. Local water agencies are urging reduced water usage.
These efforts aren’t enough, even with recent rains. Local leaders must understand extreme water challenges, many driven by global warming. They have the most credibility with voters and residents. People see them at their churches, schools, farmers markets and soccer fields. They are elected to be their voices on public bodies.
This bottom-up strategy among those closest to the people is vital. The times demand fair and sustainable solutions to new realities in this era of climate change impacting water. With so many Americans harboring disdain for national and state leaders, local leadership remains essential.
Latino elected officials, in particular, must understand how water issues affect their often-neglected communities, where so many believe they have little or no voice in the political process even as the social inequities surrounding water policy are inescapable. It is a fateful paradox that while keeping our food system functioning falls heaviest on the backs of Latino workers, they are most frequently plagued by water contamination and scarcity.
Local Latino elected leaders need to be their voice by being properly informed since they are on the frontlines of passing and administering bond funding, infrastructure contracts and raising public awareness.
Hard decisions lie ahead. Water will need to be conserved in our households, businesses, and yes, in agriculture.
Monthly water bills will remain expensive to maintain infrastructure despite consuming less water through conservation. Old broken pipes need to be replaced while investing in new technology preventing contaminants. Agriculture and other industries have dumped pollutants into groundwater for 50 years. Cleaning them up is costly but necessary to tap vast amounts of water in local aquifers.
Finally, voters will surely be asked to approve water tax hikes or bonds to finance increased efforts by local water agencies to manage the crisis.
Water is a precious, life-giving treasure. An indispensable solution is educating local elected officials so they can serve as the people’s champions.