What follows is a blog I wrote for The Funders’ Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities, a membership organization for philanthropic foundations. In 2015, I was a participant in a yearlong fellowship program for mid-career professionals in philanthropy conducted by the organization.
We had an opportunity to visit communities all around the country and learn. I wrote about some of my experiences on our week-long site visit to the San Joaquin Valley in California. Even though I wrote this piece for an audience of professional philanthropy staff members, I have shared the blog here, with minor edits, as I think it is relevant as we consider the dynamics of philanthropy and the role it plays in our democracy – a topic I write about quite a bit. Learn more about The Funders’ Network here: www.thefundersnetwork.org.
“Imagine having two bank accounts with money for your everyday needs, only one of them – the one you draw from when the primary account runs low – is a virtual black box. You really have no idea what the balance is, and there is no record of deposits and withdrawals. This is how water is managed in California, with 38 million people and the world’s eighth largest economy.”
They call the San Joaquin Valley the food basket of the world. In a sun-streaked elementary school cafeteria located in Sultana, Calif., (pop. 650), the PLACES Fellows crammed into tables built for smaller bodies. A village elder, Mr. Michael Prado, settled humbly at the front of the room, arms resting along his cane. He was joined by feed store owner and rancher Isaac Orduno, and an advocate, Ryan Jensen, from the Community Water Center. Mr. Prado serves as the volunteer president of the local water district, the only meaningful form of governance in this unincorporated township. Folks in Sultana don’t rely on distant county officials for much. But for years, Sultana has relied upon a single well to supply its drinking water. Sometime before 1996, the community’s original well began to test positive for DBCP, a hazardous agricultural soil fumigant which was banned in 1977. So, it was necessary for Mr. Prado and the service district to construct a new public supply well, which they did in 1996. Sultana’s original well can only be used as a backup in emergencies.
A few months before our visit, as Mr. Prado drove towards home, a sinking feeling set in as the sight of an irrigation well-rig crept into view less than a football field away from Sultana’s primary well. Sultana leaders sprang into action, planning a trip to the county seat to research the well logs, which contain aquifer information supplied to the state during the permitting process. They hoped to find out how deep the well would be in order to determine the lifespan of their vulnerable water source. Mr. Prado and other leaders were stopped in their tracks by a sixty-year-old law that rendered well logs confidential and proprietary business information. Attempts to contact the company responsible for the drilling were not successful. Even though the law on the well logs is now changing, there is still no cause of action to prohibit drilling activities that threaten drinking water wells.
After concluding his story, Mr. Prado looked each of the Fellows in the eye and asked, “So now how can you help us?” A silence fell. We weren’t prepared for that.
While Sultana is just one small rural community, it is not an aberration. The Community Water Center has identified 165 communities in the Greater Central Valley with recurring drinking water quality violations. There are already other nearby towns which have fully lost access to water. For example, the residents of Monson, who rely on private domestic wells, have suffered the failure of a significant percentage of the wells due to nitrate contamination. There is no program, state or local, to help these households. Organizations like Self-Help Enterprises, with help from the Fresno Regional Foundation, have stepped up to supply emergency water tanks, but low-income families still need to foot the bill for delivery, which isn’t cheap. It’s bewildering to think that there are folks in America today who don’t have affordable, regular access to safe drinking water. Perhaps more bewildering is the fact that there are so few laws on the books that protect that access. People like Mr. Prado generally haven’t been invited to sit at the decision table when these laws are being made.
A similar dissonance can exist in philanthropy. Upon a bit of research, it turns out that the company responsible for the new irrigation well, which sells a very recognizable product in most American grocery stores, is deeply engaged in giving – something to absolutely be celebrated. However, this charitable work appears as if it may be being done in places and in ways that fall far afield from Sultana and its critical water needs.
The charitable provisions of our tax code were established to incentivize our society’s wealth generators and everyday Americans to invest in the common good. But looking at the San Joaquin Valley, it is hard to say that this system always results in charitable investments being made in ways that take into account the voices, needs and interests of all. Poor, rural communities frequently get left behind. We must recognize that just as our laws can fail to uphold the common good, our system of philanthropy can result in patterns of investment that are uncoordinated, haphazard, and rife with blind spots.
As for the at-risk farmworker communities in the San Joaquin Valley, their answer may be found in collaboration. Through the Northern Tulare County Regional Safe Drinking Water Project, Sultana and six other communities are exploring a shared governance structure that would allow them to fund a joint water treatment plant, providing access to the more plentiful resources of the Kings River. Folks from the Community Water Center are lending expertise and helping to shepherd a democratic, inclusive process for all stakeholders. It is a bright spot in a daunting landscape.
So, how can we help? The answer to the question Mr. Prado posed to the PLACES Fellows might also have something to do with collaboration – and democracy.
If those of us working in philanthropy can unite around a common agenda to strengthen our civil society, there might be a chance that Mr. Prado’s grandchildren will not have to fight the same battles. Perhaps instead of spending so much time identifying unmet needs and the programs that will meet them, more funders can join together to invest in efforts that allow individuals and groups to more strongly advocate for themselves. This would involve supporting work that eliminates barriers to participation in the democratic process at the local, state, and federal levels. It involves supporting efforts to promote transparency in government. It would also involve investments that build strong pathways to inclusion for marginalized groups, often through capacity, leadership and network-building. It certainly involves support for education. Funders have a tremendous opportunity to join together to support structures for participation that allow everyone to have a say in the matters that affect their lives, especially with regard to basic human rights like water. It would require the challenging task of working together and leveraging our resources, but imagine what could be accomplished.
 “Groundwater records should not be kept confidential in drought-stricken California,” Laurel Firestone & Thomas Harter, The Guardian (March 27, 2015), available at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/mar/27/groundwater-records-should-not-be-kept-confidential-in-drought-prone-california