Water Hub Blog

Rising Voices: Water affordability and shrinking wells

woman drinking a glass of water

In each edition of our regular Maven’s Notebook Q&A, we check in with advocates & organizers in California to talk about water issues impacting local communities. This month, we spoke to Clean Water Action’s Program Associate, Cristal Gonzalez & California Director, Jennifer Clary, about how the state and its communities are responding to a shrinking water supply.

Tell us about yourself and your role.

Cristal Gonzalez: I went to UC Santa Cruz for environmental studies and sociology. I’ve always had a passion for environmental justice with a critical lens in policy work. I try to center an intersectional lens. My role is Program Associate with Clean Water Action, which means I do a little bit of everything in terms of program work. [I] do a lot of policy advocacy around the Human Right to Water in California, including engaging with the State Resource Control Water Board, Department of Water Resources and the legislature. We’ve focused on water affordability that the pandemic really exacerbated, which is our main campaign focus right now. We’re working to create a permanent low-income water bill assistance program, and will be pushing for that legislation again next year.

Jennifer Clary: As the California Director at Clean Water Action, I’m responsible for all program implementation. Before stepping into this role, I was running the water program — this work is really important to me. 

What are the water issues that are top of mind for you and your community right now?

JC: We’ve been working on the Human Right to Water campaign for 15 years. We’ve gotten used to framing it as, ‘What does it take? How do we break down barriers?’ There is always another barrier in the way when one is eliminated. Communities need help with writing grants. When we find solutions, we find water ends up being unaffordable. How do we incorporate inflation in the costs when budget challenges arise? How do we incorporate safety, access and affordability? Other concerns include, ‘is the well going to run dry, is it polluted with chemicals and how much does it cost to get the water?’

What do you wish decision makers understood better about this issue/the communities you work with?

CG: Affordability. We’d like people to understand the issue but also recognize it’s a human issue too. With the pandemic, there’s other debt that people have accrued. It’s in the best interest of the state to consider that water debt is not equitable. Water is a right. People shouldnt have to pay for water, at the end of it all, people deserve access to water. It shouldn’t matter if you have money or not to pay for it.

What other water issues are top of mind for you right now?

CG: Another top of mind issue is drought. We’re in it. We’ve been in it. It’s going to continue. How do we make sure that people have continued access to water? At the last drought, action was delayed, people were already losing water and state and local entities coordinated to support different communities across the state. Groundwater sustainability is another issue that’s important to us because it intersects with drought, water access and water quality for current and future use. 

JC: This isn’t a new drought. The problem when you have a drought that lasts 13-14 years with a few wet years in the middle is you end up having cascading impacts. No recovery time. 724% increase in wells running dry compared to last year. 

What solutions are you seeing locally that could be scaled up? 

CG: The need to coordinate efforts and open the line of communication with community partners and try to build capacity to engage on the issues. We have been seeing more recognition from state agencies to address this gap. A lot of these issues impact the community by making sure people are involved in the process. They know what’s going on, so how they can participate and provide influence on decision making policy would be great.

What changes or resources are most needed to solve these problems?

JC: Local coordination and cooperation. Most of these problems are decades old or decades in the making. When you’re looking at institutional issues like race, class and poverty, you need to have a change in local government to resolve them readily. A lot of these changes would be made more readily if we had buy-in to make it happen.

CG: [The] difficult thing about drought planning is that it has largely been in the purview of water systems. Large water agencies have had robust drought plans and smaller ones don’t really have them at all but the real issue is no funding or no infrastructure at the county level to implement [drought preparedness].

Anything else you want people to know?? 

CG: We’ve also been advocating to advance the Human Right to Water in the Department of Water Resources programs and planning to ensure communities have equitable access to resources and input in decision making. One area we’re making sure this is recognized is the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA)

JC: Working on 2020 and 2022 groundwater management plans during a drought; ensuring that communities and the environment are considered while the plans are being developed by the power brokers who are responsible for the current condition of the aquifers. Check out our website for work with partners on groundwater basins.

What’s your happy place? 

CG:  Close to bodies of water. I’m new here in Sacramento, so getting to know the river especially after work when the sun is setting is my happy place. 

JC: Lucky enough to live near the ocean so walking along the beach is my happy place.

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