Impact Fund Launches Clean Water Project: Environmental Justice in the San Joaquin Valley

 Daniel Nesbit, Law Fellow, The Impact Fund

Daniel Nesbit, Law Fellow, The Impact Fund

There are 310,000 people living in unincorporated communities in the San Joaquin Valley, 65% are people of color and 64% are low income.

The Problem

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In East Porterville, Tomas Garcia and his family haul water to their home to use for showers, toilets, and dishes. Only bottled water is safe to drink. The stress of the situation strained Mr. Garcia’s high blood pressure and diabetes; others in his community had suicidal thoughts. In Seville, Rebecca Quintana and her family relied on costly bottled water to replace the tap water contaminated by a high level of nitrates until a new well could be installed. The lack of access to clean water takes its daily toll on communities like East Porterville and Seville across the San Joaquin Valley.

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The region’s congressional district ranks the lowest in the nation on resident well-being, determined by an assessment of health, education, and income. Over 300,000 Californians in this region live in unincorporated communities like East Porterville and Seville outside city limits, which are disproportionately made up of people of color and low-income residents. These communities lack the most basic features of a safe, healthy, sustainable neighborhood—potable drinking water, sewer systems, safe housing, public transportation, parks, sidewalks, and streetlights.

Among these problems, lack of access to clean water, declared a human right by the state of California, remains one of the most severe. Cut out of the local political process, residents find their communities systematically underserved and lacking the attention of public resources in this crucial aspect of daily life. Agricultural production often leaves water sources contaminated and unsafe, with those responsible let off the hook. As a result, too many face the routine struggle of not having clean and affordable water.

Fighting for Clean Water

The Impact Fund is no stranger to the fight to provide clean water for people like the Garcia and Quintana families. In 2015, we made a grant to Leadership Counsel for Justice & Accountability to support efforts to bring clean, affordable water to residents of Matheny Tract.

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Matheny Tract is a 344-home historical farmworker community in unincorporated Tulare County. In 2006, community residents received notice that their drinking water was contaminated and the distribution systems that gave them water was deteriorating. The community organized and worked to find a solution: construction of a new water system and an agreement that the City of Tulare would provide potable water to the residents. However, in 2014 the City announced it would stop construction because it wouldn’t have enough water to supply the community.

In response, the Matheny Tract Committee (MTC), a community group, put pressure on the city to fulfill its obligations. The City filed suit to relieve it of its duty. With the help of Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, the MTC counter-sued. During the process, the State ordered the City to negotiate an agreement to consolidate water systems under SB 88. Though the City initially refused to negotiate, the residents of Matheny Tract persisted and ultimately won a huge victory as trial approached: the City agreed to consolidate its water supply with the community.

Efforts like those of the MTC and the Leadership Counsel prove that while the road to clean water for disadvantaged Californians can be a long and difficult one, a holistic strategy of litigation and organizing works. Advocates and community members can make a meaningful difference.

A New Project

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It is in that spirit that the Impact Fund begins the Clean Water Project, an initiative starting this year and continuing through 2020 to support the ongoing fight for clean water in the San Joaquin Valley.

Funded by a grant from the State Bar of California, the project has three main goals:

(1) Fund lawsuits that are fighting for access to clean water;

(2) Strengthen networks that organize for clean water; and,

(3) Host a forum in the fall of 2018 to bring together community members, advocates, leaders, and lawyers to discuss and develop strategies to achieve reliable and affordable access to clean water in the San Joaquin Valley.

In addition to Leadership Counsel for Justice & Accountability, our partners in this project are proven advocates fighting for clean water. They include the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, the Center for Poverty, Race, and the Environment and the Community Water Center. We are eager to connect with others who share our commitment to guaranteeing this basic human right in California.

Next Steps

 The Project aims to repeat the success of the residents of Matheny Tract in their fight for clean water

The Project aims to repeat the success of the residents of Matheny Tract in their fight for clean water

In the new year, the Impact Fund has focused on developing relationships with our partners. We have begun to identify opportunities for litigation, network building, and the upcoming forum. We are excited to bring our attention and the resources of the State Bar grant to this pressing matter of environmental justice.

More information about the project can be found here and if you are interested in staying up to date with the project you can sign up with your email here: