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The Color of California Water Politics

Water is a resource which all human beings need for survival. Presently in California, water is a precious and increasingly scarce resource because of environmental, economic, social and political factors. There is intense competition for access to water, which raises a range of related issues, from water quantity to water quality, from water use to how much water costs. Yet entire communities of people in California, namely people of color and low-income people, have no voice in the debate or in policy-making over water resources in the state. This is unacceptable. There is something fundamentally and morally wrong about excluding entire communities of people from the discussion and decision-making process involving water, a resource which is a critical need for all people.

Water Policy, People of Color, and the Poor

In all the forums discussing and formulating policy about water in California, people scratch their heads and ask, "Why aren't there more people of color?" It is often said that people of color do not care about the environment and that they are not interested in water. If you don't think people of color care about water, just turn off the tap to East Oakland and see how much that African American community cares about water. Shut off the tap to the Mission District in San Francisco and see if that Latino community cares about water. Try Chinatown and the Tenderloin, and you will see that working, low-income and poor people of all colors care about water. When people see their self interest at stake, they will pay attention. When people hear their needs being addressed, they will listen. Given the rapidly changing demographics of California's population, which will be comprised by a majority of people of color by the year 2000, it is short-sighted to fashion water policies without these voices at the table.

One may ask, Why should communities of color and low-income communities of the inner city care about water policy? What, if anything, does it have to do with priority survival issues, such as the need for jobs, food, affordable housing, adequate health care and the crises of drugs, violent crime, AIDS and the poverty of central cities? To answer these questions, we need to first look at what water policy is and what the impacts of water policy are on communities of color and low-income communities.

Examples of Water Issues Important to People of Color

  • Drinking Water & Lead Poisoning

Most of the focus on water issues in California is on water supply, water allocation, how water is used and the persistent drought. Little attention is consistently paid to safe drinking water. One in six people drink water with excessive amounts of lead, a heavy metal which impairs the central nervous system, learning ability and attention span. Much of the housing stock in the inner city is old, often containing corroding lead-soldered pipes, which leach lead into the tap water. Add this fact to the already high rates of lead poisoning in the inner city, particularly of young people, and one sees another facet of a serious threat to community health and safety of already stressed communities.

  • People v. Fish (or Jobs vs. the Environment)

Efforts to save the chinook salmon in the San Francisco Bay raised once again the tension between environmental protection and the economic survival of people, or more crudely put, the people versus fish (jobs versus the environment) dilemma Environmentalists claimed that dredging the San Francisco Bay to allow sufficient channel depth for ship navel to the ports of Oakland and San Francisco jeopardized the survival of the chinook salmon and its winter run. Mainstream environmentalists were adamant in their calls to save the chinook salmon – an important and necessary thing to do. But no less important and necessary is to fight for the economic survival of communities that would be devastated if the economic opportunities of the ports of Oakland and San Francisco, such as they are, were jeopardized. The experiences and perspectives of communities of color need to be part of the discourse concerning environmental and economic issues of the Bay, for they are inextricably interrelated.

Water Policy Excludes People of Color and the Poor

Though water resources and policies affect people of color and the poor, they are not part of the debate or decision-making process. There are a number of fora and institutions addressing water issues in California. For example, there are the "three-way negotiations" occurring among representatives of urban water districts, agribusiness and "mainstream" environmentalists. There is also the Committee for Water Policy Consensus and the San Francisco Estuary Project, in addition to dozens of public interest organizations and government agencies whose purpose is to deal with various aspects of California water policy.

One example from these fora that highlights issues of social justice and equity related to water is the "Memorandum of Understanding Regarding Urban Water Conservation (MOU)." This informal agreement was reached by participants on the Committee for Water Policy Consensus, a group comprised mostly of urban water suppliers, water districts and some large mainstream environmental organizations. It sets forth certain "Best Management Practices" for conserving urban water. One of these practices targets the top 20% of water users who would receive information and services related to water audits and incentives to implement various water saving devices, as well as adjustments to high water use bills if water conservation measures are implemented. Typical of middle-class investment models, this policy formula does not address social equity issues regarding inner city communities of color and low-income communities. The people who will benefit the most are the highest water users. Those who typically use the most water are either high-usage businesses or middle-class and high-income households, who can afford to wash multiple automobiles, hose down sidewalks and driveways, fill swimming pools and hot tubs, have multiple bathrooms with various water using devices, water lush lawns and gardens – water uses that inner city residents do not have the luxury of enjoying. This guideline, as one example of a market-based policy model that professes to be neutral and objective, is inherently biased.

Yes, those who use the most water should be targeted to conserve water. But, there must also be a mandate to make water conservation devices, services and incentives available to low-income households. As competition for water increases, as the prolonged drought persists, driving up the price of water, those left out in conservation efforts are going to be paying the higher cost of water down the road. The price of water sometimes varies widely from one community to another, thus making water pricing an important component of the water conservation debate. Additionally, land use and planning policies which favor suburban development exacerbate the decay and abandonment of the urban infrastructure and contribute to water policy inequities. Market-based policy models that do not account for these social inequities do not address the socioeconomic "externalities" that have very real impacts on particular communities of people.

Similarly, policies that target single family homes and new housing construction benefit those who can afford to own or build a new home or apartment building. Water conservation policies should target homeowners and new residential construction. But, they should also target existing older homes and apartment buildings in the inner cities. However, there is no policy mandate in the MOU to provide water conservation services to low-income and inner city water users.

Another example of the social equity implication of water policy is the concept of "water banking," or "water marketing." This market model is being touted as the answer to problems of water supply and allocation: if you let the "free market" take care of it, the result will be a more efficient water transfer system. From an environmental justice perspective, this argument is not convincing. Similar arguments have been made in the energy policy arena. While not a perfect analogy to water issues, the energy sector is riddled with social, economic and environmental inequities which the "free market" has, far from solving, often created and exacerbated. People of color and poor people bear an unfair burden of adverse social, economic and environmental impacts of our current energy system. These communities bear a greater share of toxic contamination and health burdens of every kind h m lead. carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides and A benzene in motor vehicle and industry emissions, to contamination of soil and groundwater under abandoned gas stations, industrial parks, oil refineries, hazardous waste facilities and other toxic waste sites. They also bear a disproportionate economic burden, paying up to one third of their total household budgets for basic energy services. Market models being put forth to try to reverse adverse environmental impacts and to be disincentives to natural resource waste are all too often regressive and inequitable. There are lessons to be learned from the energy sector experience that should be applied to water policy. California water policy is lacking a systematic and consistent method for addressing the equity implications and the distribution of benefits and burdens of "free" or modified market water supply and transfer policy proposals.

If the "water negotiators" have decided or decide, a priori, that free market water transfers are the best solution to California's water needs, and expect others who had no part in debating that position to join with them in advocating this policy solution, then resistance from those left out should come as no surprise. This is not a constructive way to build bridges and establish coalitions with diverse communities with diverse interests. We all need water. We all need to decide what we are going to do about water in California.

New models are needed. Old assumptions must be challenged. Water politics as usual does not serve the public interest Cities, agriculture and the natural environment need not be antagonists. We need to look at the long-term view to make connections, see interrelationships, understand social, economic and environmental ramifications and put forth ideas that take these into account. Policies such as water marketing have equity implications, benefits and burdens, which affect city dwellers as well as rural communities. We can see that from the experience in the energy sector. We can see that in a free market logic that says it is "cost effective" to put toxic incinerators and hazardous waste facilities in communities of color and poor communities, urban and rural.

Building An Environmental Justice Advocacy Base: Bringing In New Voices

Diversifying the process of formulating California water policy is not a matter of asking some people of color to join and support the already-established group of people already sitting at the table and their respective agendas. It is not a matter of "inviting" people of color to "participate."

If communities of color, working and low-income people are to support water policies being proposed by "water negotiators" and public officials, then these negotiators and officials must support struggles for social justice. "Support" does not just mean finding out peoples' issues and advocating positions on them. While that is important, it is also important to work with people from diverse communities to shape and set the agenda, which means a willingness to step outside of one's area of "expertise" to address larger relationships and issues that others may see as being important.

Disenfranchised communities face a creative challenge of building an advocacy base from which their voices are injected into the water policy debate and their interests incorporated into decision-making regarding water resources and issues. There is a need to institutionalize knowledge, information, expertise and economic resources in the community regarding water issues and other key urban environmental resources, such as land, air and energy. Community development corporations, with their knowledge and connections to communities, are well positioned to take a leadership role in this regard – to be a repository of knowledge, skills, and resources regarding environmental justice in urban communities of color and low-income communities. People of color and poor people are affected by their environments, too often adversely. They have a stake in how we deal with urban environmental resources.

Environmental justice is about empowering disenfranchised communities to be a part of the debate and decision-making process about environmental resources. It is not about one group of people lading, joining or following another. It is about facilitating constructive, collaborative and cooperative working relationships among social justice advocates, environmentalists, policymakers, and others. So long as we hold to our "specialty" agendas, we will effectively get nowhere. For progressive change to happen to meet the needs of social justice and environmental protection, we need new visions and new models. To be equal partners and to sit at the policy-making table, communities of color, working, and low-income communities need access to knowledgeable people, information, and resources, including money, just as public agencies, private corporations and large environmental organizations have.

Water Policy and Ecologically Sustainable Community Economic Development

By looking at water policy, communities of color and low-income urban communities can discover and realize tangible opportunities for community economic development and empowerment In efforts to conserve and reuse gray and reclaimed urban water, community development corporations can develop programs to make water conservation information and services available to water users in the community. For one example, water audits of businesses, residences and public buildings, along with water conservation retrofit programs can provide employment opportunities to stimulate local economic development To the extent that water use is reduced within a community, it should be able to benefit from the savings in water expenditures and to keep the retained savings in the community to promote other economically and ecologically sustainable development As with energy efficiency, weatherization, and retrofit programs in the residential and small business energy sector, parallel efforts in water conservation and reclamation can be made while promoting socially and environmentally responsible small business opportunities, affordable housing and community economic development programs.


As diverse cultures and communities of color become the majority in California (in San Francisco and Oakland, people of color are already the majority), the public debate, policy and decision-making process must reflect that reality. African, Native, Asian/ Pacific Islander and Latino Americans, as well as low-income and working people, must become advocates of a new environmentalism which bridges community, culture, class, race and sex. The diverse cultural life experiences of people of color must infuse public consciousness and our orientation to environmental resources and environmental issues such as water. The social justice and equity dimensions of environmental issues must be directly addressed, for there are always social justice issues linked with the environment. This is true of water, as well as every other environmental issue.

Water policy provides an opportunity to define social and environmental equity as the starting point of the public debate and decision-making process. Only by involving the full scope of concerns and constituencies affected can California develop ecologically sustainable and socially-just policies regarding its water resources.

Water       ?õ¬?       Vol. 3 No. 2      ?õ¬?       Summer 1992

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