In parts of rural California where the basic right to safe drinking water is out of reach, particularly for many Latinx and tribal communities, RCAC’s Agua4All installed 362 water bottle ﬁlling stations.
More than a million Californians lack access to safe drinking water, a startling statistic in a state with the fifth largest economy in the world. For these Californians—of which one in three is Hispanic—the only alternatives to unsafe water are expensive bottled water or sugary drinks. Research has shown that some low-income families spend more than 10 percent of their earnings on such beverages.
This is a serious public health concern, particularly in California’s rural communities where infrastructure and ﬁnancial resources are limited. Moreover, contaminants such as arsenic can cause cancer, thyroid disorders and other serious health problems. Children are at particular risk for health problems that stem from not drinking enough water.
To address the challenge, RCAC launched Agua4All, a pilot project in partnership with The California Endowment in 2014. The idea was simple: install water bottle ﬁlling stations where they are most needed, such as in schools and community centers, and include water treatment where necessary. Today, there are 362 units throughout rural California. A crucial aspect to the program, too, was building public-private partnerships to expand access and encourage water consumption. Public/Private partnerships are collaborations between public entities and private companies to provide additional services. In this case, RCAC is partnering with foundations, public utilities, public schools, and private partners including fountain manufacturers Acorn and Elkay, bottle companies like Nalgene, and ﬁlter manufacturers to provide the products to the school locations at a steep discount.
Since the program’s pilot, success has been noticeable. In 2016, two years aﬅer the program was initiated in the Eastern Coachella Valley and Kern County, more children were drinking water (for example, at the Saul Martinez Elementary school in Mecca, the number of ounces of water consumed per student per day more than doubled and, in some cases, more than tripled once the ﬁlling stations were installed).
This year, the program expanded to other rural and tribal communities in California. Much of this is due to the work RCAC did with other drinking water advocates to secure state budget funds dedicated to improving access to clean drinking water in California schools via the Drinking Water for Schools Program. RCAC is the technical assistance provider for the grant program, which includes identifying solutions to improve access to clean drinking water; assessing water contamination levels; preparing funding applications; evaluating access at schools; coordinating communication between school and water boards; and organizing school outreach programs. RCAC staﬀ are now working with more than a dozen Tribes across 74 schools in 32 school districts in 17 counties, increasing access to clean drinking water.
Access to clean drinking water is not only critical to public health and a basic human right, it is also a fundamental building block for the development of regional economies. Places without clean drinking water will be marked by outmigration and remain low priorities for regional development stunting growth and potential. By engaging in the eﬀorts to direct state funds towards solutions in communities in need of clean drinking water and leveraging its CDFI capacity, RCAC supported the development of necessary infrastructure to foster economic opportunity and overall well-being.