A month before she began campaigning for the second-highest political position in the United States, now-Vice President Kamala Harris briefly turned her attention to a small town with a big drinking water problem.

“Utterly unacceptable that in 2020, we still can’t guarantee clean water to communities across America. It’s a fundamental human right,” Harris said in a July 9 tweet about the town of Earlimart in California’s Central Valley. “We have the solutions to address this crisis. Congress just needs to act.”

Residents in the majority-Latino town had contaminated tap water after a 50-year-old well failed. They joined roughly 1 million other Californians with toxic tap water. People of color, including in farmworker communities and historically-Black communities, are disproportionately affected.

Harris recognized that fact and has explicitly linked access to drinking water to racial inequality.

During the wave of Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality, she partnered with civil-rights leader Dolores Huerta to co-author “a fight for racial justice,” a call-to-action to address drinking water access and affordability.

“(In) 2020, the United States remains divided between those with the privilege of having clean, running tap water and those who don’t,” the op-ed stated. “As we reckon with systemic racism, our fight for safe and affordable water cannot be disentangled from the fight for justice.”

The women called for a $1 trillion investment in water infrastructure to meet the country’s needs in the next 25 years, to address disparities remaining after a long history of decisions that failed certain residents.

“Racism is fueling disparities in access to safe water,” Harris and Huerta wrote in the July 2020 the op-ed, published by The Mercury News.

“Systemic barriers, including redlining, disinvestment, unregulated pollution and neglect of Tribal water rights stand in the way of safe and affordable water for millions of people, particularly Black, Indigenous and communities of color,” they said.

Water and wastewater systems are crumbling across the country, from arsenic-laden water in Pixley, California to Fountain, Colorado where wastewater was leaching into a river, and lead poisoning from old pipes in Flint, Michigan.

Federal funding for drinking water infrastructure drastically declined over the last half-century. According to a state report released in February 2020, “the percentage of federal support in infrastructure spending for water utilities has fallen from over 30% in the 1970s to less than 5% in 2015.”

As a California senator, Harris proposed the Water Justice Act, a bill to invest $220 billion in drinking water infrastructure and establish a $10 billion program to help states offset expensive water bills in low-income communities.

Californians’ need for financial assistance has only grown in the six months since that op-ed was published.

With record-breaking unemployment and reduced working hours because of the pandemic, residents’ water bills have piled up. The State Water Board estimates Californians owe an estimated $1 billion water debt. Families are at risk of having their water shutoff or liens placed on their homes.

Old infrastructure is failing to deliver clean water and the pandemic could postpone potential fixes, according to a State Water Board report released Tuesday. Reduced revenue exacerbates the financial strain on small water systems that don’t have a customer base that can pay to build costly water treatment plants to filter out contamination.

Californians — mostly low income, many Black, Latino or Native American — can’t afford to pay for water that many can’t safely drink.

With Harris now sworn in as vice president, will she follow through with equitable solutions?

Advocates who work to bring clean and affordable drinking water to Californians are optimistic, but cautiously so.

“California just sent one of our own to the White House,” said Jonathan Nelson, policy director with Visalia-based Community Water Center.

The organization is pushing water justice as a key part of the recovery from COVID.

Water is basic PPE — you can’t wash your hands without running water. Meeting the huge need for building water infrastructure will lead to jobs, often in the very same communities most hit by the COVID-19 economy, Nelson told The Fresno Bee.

“Drinking water investments is a channel, a pathway to economic recovery, especially in smaller and rural communities,” Nelson said.

Advocates are looking for federal assistance in two forms:

  • Economic assistance for low-income residents faced with unpaid water bills

  • Massive investment in water and wastewater infrastructure

Michael Claiborne, an attorney with Leadership Council for Justice and Accountability, said he is optimistic following the inauguration.

“I think there is at least the possibility that the federal government could invest in drinking water and wastewater infrastructure,” Claiborne said. “I think it’s necessary. It’s definitely needed.”

In addition, he pointed out that President Joe Biden has proposed an additional $5 billion for water and energy assistance to renters as part of a broader $30 billion rental assistance program.

The last relief package Congress passed in December included $638 million for grants to states and Indian Tribes to assist low-income households pay water bills or for systems to reduce charges. California expects to get about 10% of that.

California’s water crisis didn’t happen overnight. Both Nelson and Claiborne said it won’t be solved quickly.

“‘Will Harris be a champion for water justice?’ I think that’s the question,” Nelson said. “She certainly understands it, and she has an opportunity to be a champion for water justice.”

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