Environmental Justice Coalition for Water

Article by Carolyn Day

For the last five years, California’s drought has given rise to a host of water policies aiming to ensure that all Californians have access to clean drinking water. Despite these policies, however, injustice in water allocation remains a significant problem.

As of 2016, an estimated 39 million people live in the state of California. The majority of these people live in urban areas (approximately 87% in 2010), and, historically, the urban majority has assumed more rights to water than the rural minority. Many of California’s rural communities are composed of primarily low-income people of color, most of whom speak little to no English. This combination of reasons causes these communities to lack significant representation within the state government, and allows the government to ignore their needs in favor of those policies that benefit the majority.

As a result of their underrepresentation, rural communities in California often experience a greater burden of environmental challenges. Environmental justice originated as a way to give these communities the tools that they needed to gain representation and bring attention to their problems. Environmental justice movements were first formed by former civil rights activists and, through the tools used by those activists— “marches, petitions, rallies, coalition building, community empowerment through education, litigation and nonviolent direct action,”— underrepresented communities can make their voices heard. These tools are still used today by environmental justice organizations as they serve their communities in the fight for access to a clean and safe environment for themselves and their children.

The Environmental Justice Coalition for Water (EJCW) is one such organization working to serve underrepresented Californians and their rights to water. EJCW is a California-wide coalition of grassroots organizations and intermediary groups who are all working towards developing democratic water allocation, management, and policy-making in California. As a community-based movement, EJCW works to empower under-served communities and provide them with a platform to speak to their needs to ensure they have access to clean, safe, and affordable water. Their mission is “to educate, empower, and nurture a community-based coalition that serves as a public voice and an effective advocate for environmental justice issues in California water policy.”

As EJCW’s executive director, social justice attorney Colin Bailey works to ensure everyone has access to water through their work with other groups, both locally and nationally. To this end, Colin also “supports EJCW’s statewide policy agenda, programs, outreach and education, and grassroots member organizations.” This includes serving as a member of the Community Stakeholders Advisory Committee (CSTAC) for UC Davis’s Environmental Health Science Center (EHSC).

The EHSC was established in part to “facilitate multidisciplinary scientific and community-driven research collaborations to reduce environmentally-related diseases and to grow the next generation of environmental health scientists.” This effort is lead by its Community Outreach and Engagement Core (COEC), which is responsible for supporting community-based environmental health research and brokers relationships between community groups like Colin’s and university researchers. This enables organizations to direct the focus of research as to what best targets the needs and interests of the community they serve.

Through the matchmaking services of the COEC, Colin, the EJCW, and their coalition members have the opportunity to work alongside some researchers in a variety of academic fields. Currently, the EJCW is working with their coalition member, Comité Cívico Del Valle, Inc (CCV). The CCV, like the EJCW, is an organization serving the underrepresented communities of Imperial Valley and Coachella Valley. Founded in 1987, the CCV works to educate and serve their communities through a variety of programs targeted the public, academia, professionals, and the government.

Together, the EJCW and the CCV have recently partnered with Dr. Kent Pinkerton, a pulmonary health scientist at UC Davis. They are collaborating on a project that will study the effects of particulate matter in the air on air quality and public health in the cities of Brawley and Calipatria, located adjacent to the Salton Sea. Members of these communities have expressed concern for the health of their children due to an increase in cases of childhood asthma, observing a change in air quality as the sea evaporates and creates dust. Colin Bailey and Kent Pinkerton’s partnership may seem odd; why would an organization working to protect the water rights to underserved communities want to work with a scientist studying pulmonary health?

When asked about the reasons for working with Dr. Pinkerton, Colin explained that EJCW is first and foremost an environmental justice organization. Even though the research focuses on air quality and pulmonary health, the hope is the project will provide evidence to how water should be allocated within Southern California so as to include the Salton Sea. As Colin made clear, this story is also one of water allocation. The environmental and health crisis of the communities of the Salton Sea is exacerbated because water allocation in Southern California benefits larger metropolitan areas and ignores the needs of low-income people of color in small, rural communities (such as Brawley and Calipatria).

Colin is optimistic about the development of this research project, and is particularly appreciative of Dr. Pinkerton’s eagerness to learn more about community-based research. Colin is also intrigued by the opportunity to be a part of a research project from start to finish; most of the EJCW’s other projects have involved mainly secondary data analyses, such as looking at water affordability and the impacts of state programs on an intended community. One such study was also a collaboration fostered by the UCD EHS Center and in which the EJCW partnered with Dr. Swee Teh and involved well water testing and animal models. The study with Dr. Teh aims to identify the cumulative impacts of multiple contaminants below the legal limit in water, with the hope that the results will be grounds for water policy change.

Although Colin enjoys working with Dr. Teh and is excited about working with Dr. Pinkerton, he reflects on a common issue of working with researchers: who has ownership over the results of the study. This creates a point of contention between the community and researchers. The community wants to have a say as to where and how the research is published, such as in the form of informational pamphlets, documentaries, or legislation. However, for most researchers the end result of research is publication in a journal because the university owns the research. But, either way, the science has to serve the community being studied. The community members can’t be research subjects because their problem doesn’t end when researchers leave. Colin emphasized that there is an opportunity at every level of the research process for community partners and researchers to work together performing the research and then educating the community on the findings, how to change their behavior, and how to advocate for change.