CWC's Ryan Jensen testified on vulnerable Valley communities at a State Assembly Hearing on Drought Emergency Services on July 15. His full comments are below.
Good morning. My name is Ryan Jensen, and I’m a community organizer with Community Water Center in Visalia, CA. We’re an Environmental Justice nonprofit whose mission is to act as a catalyst for community-driven water solutions through organizing, education, and advocacy in the San Joaquin Valley. CWC has been working since 2006 with Disadvantaged Communities struggling to access safe, reliable, and affordable drinking water. This problem has only been exacerbated by the ongoing drought, which disproportionately impacts our most vulnerable communities.
We are in uncharted territory. Typical disaster response protocols are not designed to deal with this type of prolonged emergency. Traditional funding programs operate at a painfully slow pace for households without water. But we are all learning as we go. The state has done an increasingly good job making funding available and demonstrating flexibility and creativity. In the same way, Tulare County has shown great leadership in coordination with local nonprofits, to assist their drought impacted residents. Other California counties would do well to follow Tulare County’s example. However, there is still room for improvement.
To meet community needs and improve the drought response, we need to take action to advance solutions on three fronts: interim emergency solutions; long-term solutions; and proactive source water protection.
The first front, interim solutions, are emergency measures which provide immediate assistance. For thousands of people, these interim responses have been very effective. Tulare County has been a leader in accessing state funding to provide emergency water to hundreds of families. But relief is still coming too slow for many households, some waiting months for basic emergency assistance, while many others are still falling through the cracks.
The state and county need to address several important shortcomings to meet residents’ immediate needs: first, counties and the state need to better track and share data on the scope of the drought crisis; second, existing programs need to be more accessible and more immediately responsive to all residents in need; and third, program coordinators need to ensure that information is reaching the ground level and improve communication with residents to advance community-driven solutions.
Tulare County has done an impressive job tracking and reporting well failures, but few other counties have stepped up to this task. In addition to collecting better data on the number of people impacted statewide, The state and counties should also be proactively identifying vulnerable communities that are in imminent danger of losing the Human Right to Water during the drought.
For residents that have reported well failures, emergency solutions from the existing programs are still slow to arrive, and in some cases, not available at all. Regardless of whether a property is a rental or owner-occupied, the permitting process has, at times, greatly delayed solutions. Homeowners have reported waiting months to get through the process of ownership verification, site assessment, permitting, and scheduling before a tank is installed -- all the while relying on small donated tanks or almost daily trips to fill up water from a centralized location. Tenants of rental properties face nearly insurmountable obstacles to accessing a tank to provide water for their daily needs. Even when landlords want to buy tanks themselves, it is not yet clear if assistance with water deliveries can be made available due to concerns with Gift of Public Funds. And while relocation assistance is a necessity, this should really be an option of last resort, as relocating families creates a new set of hardships and breaks apart communities which residents consider their home.
But perhaps the greatest single need is for more effective outreach and collaboration at the ground level to ensure that information and assistance is reaching those who need it most. Local water boards, community based organizations, and community residents have expressed confusion and a lack of clarity about the available assistance and who is eligible and responsible to apply for aid. Last year, several communities that were receiving bottled water through the county program, such as Ducor and Poplar, had their deliveries abruptly ended because of confusion over whether their local water board or the county needed to apply for funding. And some residents report ongoing difficulties obtaining assistance with the current 211 system.
The second front, arguably more important than the emergency response, are long-term solutions. It’s not enough to just fund Band-Aid Solutions - we need to ensure that our most vulnerable communities don’t find themselves in this situation again. It’s vital that we spend emergency drought funding wisely, and in coordination with long-term funding sources like Prop 1, to get permanent water solutions to our smallest and most vulnerable communities. This can be accomplished by helping small rural systems and private well owners connect or consolidate into larger regional public water systems. Larger water systems can operate more efficiently and sustainably, producing affordable and safe water into the foreseeable future and through the next drought. We have seen many success stories on this front. To name just a few, there is the extension of service from the Cal Water Visalia system to a number of neighboring areas; the extension of service from Farmersville to Cameron Creek Colony; and the innovative emergency water system being pursued by Tulare County for the community of Monson which is intended to form part of a permanent solution involving extension of service from neighboring Sultana. But such long-term solutions are stalled in other communities. Outside of Poplar, there are many residents whose wells have gone dry, but the Poplar system lacks the capacity to extend service to them even if they were inclined to do so. The community of Matheny Tract is still waiting to consolidate with the City of Tulare, and Tooleville is similarly waiting to consolidate with the City of Exeter. East Porterville remains in triage mode, with no apparent path to a Long Term solution. Such a solution may be complicated, but the conversations with residents need to begin in order to evaluate the available options. Long-term solutions are vital to ensuring community resilience to future droughts.
The third and final front of needed actions involves doing more to proactively preserve and protect the drinking water we have. The status quo is essentially a race to the bottom as irrigators and households alike scramble to access increasingly overdrafted aquifers, and the well-drilling frenzy is producing more gravel-packed irrigation wells which potentially serve as a conduit for contamination in upper aquifers to infiltrate into deeper aquifers. The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and the Irrigated Lands Program are starting points to preserve both the quantity and quality of our groundwater supplies. But more needs to be done at all levels. We need to accelerate efforts by responsible farmers and the state to reduce fertilizer runoff, and we need to more closely scrutinize permits for new wells and water transfers to assess potential impacts to drinking water supplies. An irrigation well was drilled just last month approximately 100 yards from the sole public supply well for the community of Sultana. The water supply for the city of Woodlake and nearby homes on private wells has similarly been jeopardized due to a private water transfer. As the drought goes on, such competition for increasingly valuable access to water sources has the potential to further put vulnerable communities at risk for water supply loss.
This unprecedented drought poses serious challenges, but it’s also an opportunity. These problems can be solved if we accelerate assistance to those already impacted and use the attention on the drought to develop the permanent solutions our communities need to ensure lasting access to safe, affordable, and reliable water. Regardless of whether the current drought lasts another six months or six years, we can be certain of one thing: this isn’t our first drought, and it will not be our last. The actions we take today need to build more resilient, sustainable solutions so that we don’t find ourselves in this crisis again.