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.

Photo by Community Water Center.
Photo courtesy of Community Water Center.

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 — and it wasn’t like the water didn’t taste good, or it didn’t look good; no, we were, and we are dealing with primary contaminants — it quickly galvanized me to really think about: How do we organize and build a movement towards change? That’s how it started.

We started to ask questions: What are nitrates? What’s arsenic? Where is it coming from? Why do we have it in our drinking water? Why are our families, who are hardworking familias, having to pay some of the highest water rates for toxic water that can get them sick? And more importantly: Why do we have toxic water in our homes, a place where it should be safe for us?

And all the “whys” became: We have to do something about it. We created Community Water Center, and to this day we continue to ensure that the more than 1 million Californians who are exposed to unsafe drinking water on a daily basis can have a new reality, a new hope.

How did you come to realize the scale of the drinking-water problem California?

I’ve always been very curious and always asking: Why, why do certain things happen? So, we started to review consumer confidence reports — the water quality reports that the water systems have to provide to the residents. And we quickly realized that every single one of them was out of compliance. They were not providing safe drinking water. That was kind of the norm. And I was like, Wait a minute, so every year, they’re just not providing potable drinking water to residents? Wait a minute, Do people actually know this?

And then we said, Okay, well, we have to go into our communities and really get a better understanding of the knowledge that people have. And I just started to door knock, and just have conversations with people. I introduced myself as Susana, I work on a water campaign, and, can you drink your tap water?

And for the most part, people would say: No, Susana, I don’t drink tap water. I haven’t drank it for years. I have to pay the water bill, but I have to go buy bottled water. And then they would tell me, So and so passed away of cancer.

I quickly realized a couple of things. One, I realized that people were not drinking tap water because they were seeing people or hearing of people becoming sick. And then, more importantly, I quickly realized that people didn’t necessarily know their water quality contaminants. And so, I was like, Okay, there’s a huge gap of information.

And that’s how it started in every single community that we started to organize. I would call a meeting and I would talk about their water contaminants and we would say, You know, your current system is not providing safe drinking water. And quickly people would say, Well, what can we do? Where is this coming from?

And that, to me, was a turning point. As soon as we started informing people of where they can create change and their power, it just took off. And then we just never stopped working and people were thirsty for justice.

How do you approach this work with communities?

We work alongside and within and integrated into the community in terms of really understanding the current problem and really making sure that we are equipped to think about the short-term and long-term solutions for a community. Who do we need to talk to? How do we leverage this? Is this a regulatory fix? Is it a politics fix? Is it a media strategy? And we have these discussions with our members.

Part of our work is to ensure that people really understand how they’re part of that bigger strategy, how their community matters. And in addition to that, they have to be part of a bigger strategy to ensure that we have safe drinking water for the long run, and more importantly, that we have safe drinking water for their neighbors and nearby communities as well. So we’re keeping that hope alive so that it doesn’t become the “me” the “me” the “me.” No, it’s the, “we.” It’s the collective. As a human, I think all of us have a responsibility to ensure that we stop pollution of our drinking water sources, because we need to have safe drinking water to thrive, and it’s going to take a movement to drive that.

Do you find that most people are generally aware that so many Californians are exposed to unsafe water?

When we say over 1 million Californians are exposed to unsafe drinking water on a daily basis, the question is: How many of those people are really informed? And I would say: Not enough. Every single person, whatever zip code you live in, I challenge you to really understand your water quality.

I think it’s important that every single human becomes a lot more connected to their drinking-water quality. And then from there, I think people realize that air and water are the two basic things we need to survive. Water is precious.

Can you talk a little bit more about the equity side of the issue and about who is most exposed to unsafe water?

It is low-income people of color who are disproportionately impacted by unsafe drinking water. It is the poorest families having to pay some of the highest water rates for toxic water, for contaminated water that can get you really sick. It’s that population that has been disproportionately affected by this reality. And it has been intentional. For decades, families in people-of-color communities have been disinvested in and not part of water planning. And that has been a significant cause of why we have the unjust reality that we have today. They were intentionally not invited to be part of water planning.

We’re condemning this current generation and future generations just to think that tap water is something you don’t drink. You buy an alternative water source, paying twice for water: for a water bill, and then bottled water.

I truly believe clean water needs to be a basic human right, and it should never be a privilege.

A recent needs assessment found that some 600 water systems in California are at risk of failing. How does that reality fit into your work?

In addition to that, that report also assessed that over 1,000 systems only have one running well, which means that we have no back-up wells. That puts them at a higher risk. That needs assessment gives a good indication of the foundation we currently have in California.

In my work, we build off that foundation. We are in the trenches. We need to ensure that our domestic wells in small rural communities are really highlighted, but more importantly, they’re not just a statistic. We have plenty of studies and research and data that already tells us where these failing systems are in California.

So frankly, all we need to do now is make sure that we target and leverage resources into these communities. Part of our job is to make sure that we advocate for resources to come in a timely manner, and really have an eye for interim and long-term solutions. Because when people are dealing with primary contaminants, people need to have alternative sources now. They shouldn’t be exposed to toxic water.

And could you give an example or two of a short-term and then a long-term solution?

The interim solutions are things like water delivery to their home. Another interim solution could be, and this is really important to me, having a filtration device in their home that’s certified to remove whatever they have in their water. And more importantly, making sure that they’re also informed of how to maintain that filter.

Long-term solutions have to be proper treatment. A lot of our communities that are currently being exposed to unsafe drinking water, it’s water that’s being pumped up from groundwater. It’s going through old and dilapidated infrastructure to people’s tap. So we have to redo all that infrastructure and we have to bring in proper [water] treatment.

It’s hard to talk about water in California without talking about drought and climate change. How concerned are you about the current drought how it will impact communities?

Very concerned. I would say a lot of our communities never recovered from the last drought we had in 2017. We have a thousand [water supply] systems with only one potable drinking well. We currently have over 300 public systems that are not meeting safe-drinking-water standards. All of these systems are going to be highly affected by the drought once again.

What does that mean? It means that they’re going to start losing water. It means potential increases of contamination. It also means that if other people who have more resources are starting to go deeper into our aquifers, digging deeper wells, that kind of construction can affect public water system wells, because it just accelerates this using of water faster. So those with more resources, unfortunately, can have major effect on our drinking water resources as well.

With this drought, a couple of things are fairly different, which gives a lot of hope. One, in the last drought, we were not prepared. Many families didn’t know who to call. It was very uncoordinated. We didn’t have a good communications plan. Because we weren’t prepared for that last drought, many families, they suffered for far too long.

This time, we will have resources. In May, the governor announced a revised budget that would include significant funding for drought relief. He also [announced a mandate] for all state agencies to work together, to coordinate and to have better communication, to avoid the mistakes that we had during the last drought.

Part of our job is to ensure that we leverage the funding and resources for our communities, and be better prepared. And a lot of that’s happening right now.

But I think what’s more critical this time is, in California, droughts are a part of our lifestyle. Temperatures have increased. So that means that we really have to be investing in our communities and thinking about how we become drought resilient. How do we better become equipped to sustain these changes in the climate? That’s what we’re working on. That’s where we want to say, part of this drought is also an opportunity to really invest to make our communities drought resilient, which means making sure that they have the right technology, the right resources.

Do you ever find the scale of the task you’re facing overwhelming?

I would say that the issue that we’re working on gives me hope because, as a human, I need clean drinking water to survive. So it affects me as an individual. I live in Tulare County. I’ve been invested in the Central Valley for over a decade. This is my home, and I want my home to be safe.

I don’t get overwhelmed by thinking we’re never going to achieve our goal. I truly believe that we can achieve our mission and ensure that everyone in California has safe and affordable drinking water. And because I believe that, I’m hopeful instead of overwhelmed.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.