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In Their Own Words: Safe Drinking Water Is a Basic Human Right

October 4, 2012

An interview with Maria Herrera of the Community Water Center

UUSC worked with the Community Water Center (CWC) in Visalia, Calif., to ensure that community voices were heard during the struggle to pass California’s A.B. 685, a landmark bill affirming that human right to water. Thanks to grassroots work by a broad coalition, that bill was signed into law September 25, 2012.

Many people aren’t aware that access to clean water is even an issue in United States. Tell us what some people are facing in California communities where CWC works.

In the Central Valley here in California, and all over the state, there are many communities who don’t have access to safe, clean, or affordable drinking water. Most of those communities and families live here in the breadbasket of the world, the Central Valley, where we produce a variety of different crops, such as oranges, peaches, and plums. Often times the communities who don’t have safe drinking water are also low-income communities of color, small communities of a couple hundred homes. Those are the communities who for decades haven’t had the luxury of safe drinking water coming out of their taps and who also rely on old and dilapidated infrastructure.

So what does passage of A.B. 685 mean for children and families in California?

For decades families have had to live with this reality — paying really high water rates for water they can’t drink, and then having to travel to neighboring communities to get clean drinking water. In recent years there’s been a large movement to try to address this issue and ensure that everyone has safe water — not just certain communities or places.

Communities have spent years trying to engage and advocate at various levels. But I think one of the biggest things that was really important to those of us working on this issue is that, like you said, many people don’t know about the issue or they’re not aware of it, even here in California. Even sometimes the cities right next to you don’t even know that the community down the street has this issue.

It hadn’t been prioritized at the state level or worked on, and so what the community wanted was for there to be this state-wide recognition that this is an issue for California — and not just recognizing it but ensuring that we’re setting a goal and a foundation to work toward. We really wanted to insure that safe drinking water is a basic human right and that we deserve to have it — and everyone should have it, not just certain people. And also to make sure that as a state we are advancing and working toward that goal — and that’s specifically what A.B. 685 is going to do. It’s going to recognize this issue and unveil the reality that communities have been facing for decades and also set a goal and give clear direction to state agencies to consider this policy when they’re making decisions that could impact whether or not people have safe drinking water.

CWC has been working for several years to get this law passed. Tell us about that journey.

To pass legislation like this has taken us at least four years. We were successful in getting A.B. 1242, which was basically the same bill, all the way to Governor Schwarzenegger’s office back in 2009 but he vetoed that bill. We were left with a choice — do we care enough about this bill to pursue it again? We decided, yes, we want this, so we embarked on this journey again last year. So we introduced the bill with a different author and a different governor.

I’m not going to say it was an easy journey, because there was a lot of opposition from powerful interests who didn’t want to see the status quo in California’s water policy to change. And they were really threatened by the fact that we had a governor who in 2010 had said that safe drinking water is a priority and that it’s definitely the role of government to ensure it. Once they saw how much people were behind this, it became a threat to them. Then they actively started lobbying against this bill. We believe that was part of the bill getting stuck in Senate appropriations. At that point we were faced with: do we accept defeat and recognize that these are the committees where good bills go to die or do we fight for it?

The message from the community was very clear — this is a bill we’re fighting for and we want to see it become law. So that’s where more of the aggressive campaigning was born. We really started identifying what it was going to take to get it out of committee, who we needed to move, how we were going to get it done. We really embarked on doing a lot of community advocacy in partnership with allies in the faith-based community, like UUSC and the Unitarian Universalist Ministry of California; public health advocates; and environmental organizations, all who wanted to see this realized. We did a lot of work with connecting community partners directly to decision makers in order to remind them that this is a human issue that has real impacts on California families and that they need to take a step in addressing it. We had to do that until the very last minute, even with some of our local representatives who know the issue. We had to remind them at the very moment of the vote that they needed to vote in favor of this, because it’s meaningful and necessary for the communities that they represent.

So we were able to successfully get the bill out of the Senate Appropriations Committee — which was truly a huge victory, because it was among only 5 bills out of 250 that got a vote. The community stories, testimonies, and direct communication with certain leaders made a significant difference in getting the bill to move forward. When it went to the floor for an assembly concurrence vote, it was a really powerful moment for us. We were driving, as the hearing was happening, to put pressure on our local representatives. As we were driving, we could hear the testimonies from the various assembly members who had come up to speak in support of the bill and what was evident to us at that particular moment was that all of the work that the community had done to educate decision makers, to talk about this issue, was truly represented, and their voices were being heard. They were being channeled through the elected officials on the assembly floor — so that was huge.

It was huge to hear them talk about communities like Seville, who have terrible conditions with their water infrastructure and lack of safe water. And talk about how the U.N. came here and [Catarina de Albuquerque] was hosted by our community, educated on this issue, heard about the impact and the tough choices and inconvenient truth about California’s water policy: how we’re equipped and ready to fund large infrastructure water projects — and in most cases, those projects run right through our community’s back yards, but yet they have no access to them. It was a very powerful moment in that our stories were being told and elevated at the state level and they were influencing decisions. So that really led to getting the bill to the governor’s desk, and we waited anxiously.

You never take anything for granted, because even though we knew had a governor who clearly had his priorities straight, you just never take anything for granted when you know you have powerful industries working against you. So the work continued. Communities continued to organize themselves, get signatures to the governor, work with the media, make calls, and remind the governor that this is a priority.

On September 25, we learned that the governor signed the bill, and that was a very glorious moment for our communities. It really put everything in perspective and we believe it was a day of shifting power. It’s really like having your voice at the table even when you’re not there, with this bill. It’s a clear reminder to everyone that safe drinking water is a priority for our state and that agencies have to consider it when they’re making decisions. But it doesn’t mean that our work is done. Now we need to share that we are working with the state and the agencies to make sure that, now that we have a great goal, we actually achieve it.

How did you feel when you heard that Governor Brown officially signed the bill? What were your first thoughts?

First of all, I was actually really taken aback, because we had just gotten off the phone with Lindi [Ramsden, executive director of the UU Legislative Ministry of California]. We had been getting nervous because the timeline was ending, and we were preparing ourselves for the worst. We had been strategizing about what we would do if he didn’t sign the bill and how we would communicate with the community. Honestly, we didn’t want to spend a lot of energy on that, but we did have that conversation.

And then Lindi called me and said, “He signed!” I literally was speechless for a moment before I got out, “Oh my god, we won! We won!” It really felt like a win. Because I knew that we had struggled for years, and this was truly groundbreaking and changing — it was a win. It was an amazing, unbelievable feeling. And then, of course, the tears came in, because I just couldn’t believe that we — a small group of people — had overcome powerful interests and had influenced our decision makers to the point that they did the right thing and they passed such a controversial piece of legislation that so many were afraid of and didn’t want to see happen. That was just a momentous occasion that I will forever remember. And then I said, “OK, I have to go, I have to call everybody!”

Then you start sharing that great news — it’s not often that we get to call and say that this happened, so it was an honor to be able to make those calls to our community partners who had been working with us on all these issues and who are impacted by this day after day. I know that they are seeing the result of their work and dedication to this issue, and it was just amazing. Then it was time to party!

What’s it been like to work with UUSC, UULMCA, and the Safe Water Alliance through this process?

It’s been such an honor. I feel so privileged to have worked with amazing, dedicated, passionate people — you can see in their work how much they care about this issue and the respect that they have for the community partners who are part of this effort. Safe Water Alliance has always been an alliance where we have a strong team. No matter where I was in California speaking on this issue, sometimes in very uncomfortable positions, I knew that if there was another Safe Water Alliance member, I just felt that support. And I felt that we were very empowering of each other, supportive of each other, a strong team. We were very strategic and dedicated. I know that many of us spent a lot of hours and days working together, and it’s been great. A group that really complemented each other, and together we made a stronger team that was able to get the successful outcome. I really do think that that was part of why we were successful — that we were able to bring together the various voices and communities and put that together to ensure that the state recognizes that it was not just the affected communities that were calling for this, it was the faith community, the public health community, all these other folks.

And UUSC was a true partner, not only in the alliance but also in really making sure that we could do our work. You specifically funded our center to help really do what needed to get done to get the outcome we needed — supporting a lot of our community work, our advocacy work to make sure that A.B. 685 could happen, our work to raise public awareness and broaden support, educate our decision makers. And it also really allowed us to ensure that our staff could be part of Safe Water Alliance and continue to be part of those strategic decisions and work on the legal pieces of it, too.

So you were really a true partner not just in the alliance but also in making our work happen and being able to provide direct financial support, which is really important when you’re a nonprofit and can’t do the work if you don’t have the grant funding to do it. I don’t think we could have done as much as we did had we not had the funding from UUSC. And the key thing with that is that that funding really facilitated our ability to ensure that A.B. 685 was truly a bottom-up effort and the communities who needed this bill were able to influence and be part of the decision making.

And Lindi — I love her. She is, like many of the other members, a very dedicated and passionate woman. But I always could really relate to Lindi, because Lindi and I wear the grassroots hat all the time, always really thinking about the communities and how to connect them and how to make sure that we’re moving forward in a way that they’re a part of the decisions being made. Often times, Lindi and I both had the same passion and drive to say “No, we’re not going to give up! The communities want this; we want to move this forward!” I’ve learned a lot from her. We spent a lot of time coordinating the outside-the-building campaign with her and a few other members, so it’s been great. She can really connect with the community. It’s just been a real honor and learning experience and I’ve learned a lot from her.

What’s next on the horizon now that the bill is law?

Well, we’ve got to work on the implementation piece of it! We’ve got to ensure, now that our communities are being recognized, that we work with the state and various agencies to move to implementation phase and continue our work. Even though the bill doesn’t go into effect until January 1, it is already making change. I just recently sat in a meeting with the Department of Public Health, which is the regulator of public water systems and funding agency on most of the water projects, and we were discussing some of the funding barriers that our communities are facing. It was a real change to hear the director of this department begin the meeting by reminding us all that safe drinking water is a huge priority of the governor’s administration and that A.B. 685 recognizes that this a human right. And I think that really changes the dynamic of discussion. It was a real honor to hear how it’s already making a difference and it hasn’t even officially gone into law. There are going to be more times like that, where we’re going to see the shift and the change.

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