Hello, my name is Lauren Burton and I am a Social Science Assistant at Sierra Institute and one half of the Laurens working on a new project called the Disadvantaged Community Involvement Program. I am excited to share this project with you over the next few weeks in this month’s Spotlight. This week I’m kicking things off with some background about the “why” of this project.
Water. It’s a basic human right. We drink it. We bathe in it. We play in it. We sometimes hate it when it falls from the sky. It nurtures our plants and nourishes our cows. It feeds our forests. We love our water, but our water is not all the same. In the mountains, we face different challenges than our urban counterparts. When it rains too much down there, it floods. When it rains too much up here, well, it floods (maybe some things are the same). In some places storm drains overflow. In Oroville, dams threatened to do the same. During the drought, most Californians were told to conserve water, but still knew that when they turned on the tap, water would come out. During the drought, many rural residents worried that their wells would run dry; many didn’t know what to do if they did.
The idea that our water challenges are different throughout the state is what drives the Department of Water Resources’ Integrated Regional Water Management (IRWM) initiative, a collaborative process that brings stakeholders together to decide on priorities and strategies for their water and watersheds. Here at Sierra Institute, we’ve talked about collaborative resource management before (we’re a fan). IRWM has a regional focus, so groups can focus on the issues that matter most to them. In the mountain counties area, many of those issues concern wells, small water systems, and aging infrastructure. The area is also underserved due to its rural population and many disadvantaged communities.
Minority and low income communities often suffer more from environmental hazards, and they often have a lower capacity to mitigate these challenges. This is the basic concept behind environmental justice, which the EPA calls the “fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people” in environmental decision making. Often environmental justice is talked about in urban contexts: factories built in low income neighborhoods, toxins in the water in Flint, fatalities in heat waves concentrated on populations that can’t afford air conditioning. The movement made major headlines recently with the protests at Standing Rock, when the Dakota Access Pipeline threatened to pollute Tribal lands. In California, low income, minority, undocumented and homeless populations frequently lack access to safe drinking water. The Environmental Justice Coalition for Water is Thirsty for Justice, and they are working on these issues in California, mainly in urban areas.
In the mountains, where the air and water is generally the cleanest, the issue is less about environmental hazards and more about environmental representation. There aren’t as many opportunities to get involved up here. Most people can’t afford to volunteer their time to participate in water management. Meetings are far away, internet connectivity is poor, and funding is limited. There aren’t as many public events or opportunities to learn about water issues. IRWM groups are an opportunity to connect watersheds with statewide resource management and grant opportunities. The Disadvantaged Community Involvement Program is designed to increase participation of underrepresented groups in IRWM. To find out how, check back next week.