My short bio: Hello everybody, I am Laurel Firestone. I am the co-executive director and co-founder of the Community Water Center. and Attorney at Law. The Community Water Center's mission is to act as a catalyst for community-driven water solutions through organizing, education, and advocacy in California's San Joaquin Valley. I am going to be speaking about the work that we do at the Aspen Ideas Festival. I look forward to your questions. AMA.

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EDIT: Thank you for your questions. I've enjoyed this very much, but have run out of time. I appreciate you taking the time to learn about our work at Join us as a supporter in ensuring that all communities have access to safe, clean and affordable drinking water! I hope you can watch my discussion at the Aspen Ideas Festival about clean water and sanitation.

Comments: 58 • Responses: 10  • Date: 

Frajer16 karma

How do we prevent people from getting greedy with water, or considering it something they're guaranteed?

LaurelFirestone19 karma

Great question! I think there is a natural human tendency to want to grab as much as they can of a scarce resource when it seems to threaten their survival. It is the classic tragedy of the commons challenge in many ways. So the key is creating legal, institutional and cultural shifts that allow us to think of our future and survival as shared with our neighbors. There are lots of examples of that happening. For example, the community of Farmersville extended water lines to a small community outside their City boundaries that didn't have safe water.

LaurelFirestone15 karma

We need to shift how we think about water in particular, though. It is truly a human right and something no one can live without. CA passed the Human Right to Water Act in 2012 that says that it is the policy of the state that all human have a right to safe clean and affordable water for their basic human needs. I think that captures it right. The key is ensuring a basic amount can be affordable to all. Our current water rights and water financing systems need to shift to really achieve this, though.

jbharris7 karma

Should the US be investing more aggressively in desalination plants? If so, should that come from the private sector or government?

LaurelFirestone6 karma

Desalination is a super important technology. But the places that it is most needed and makes the most sense is actually in-land where we can take out salts and contaminants like nitrogen from contaminated water, and where we have the most communities without access to safe drinking water (or now in the drought without access to water at all). I don't know a lot about coastal desal, but I do know that it is expensive and there are environmental concerns, but some Cities are very actively pursuing it in California.

swirladay6 karma

Are secondary water markets inevitable? Would you welcome that so people understand the value of water and conserve it?

LaurelFirestone6 karma

Secondary water markets are certainly very much part of the daily lives of low-income communities. Nearly everyone we work with carries five gallon jugs to fill up at a local water vending machine, buys bottled water, or has a filter of some kind in their home. I think the real challenge is that communities aren't able to access good information on what is in their water and how these different sources compare in terms of quality and safety. The information that exists is confusing even to me and I do this for a living! I think that everyone should have the ability to access reliable, affordable safe water from the tap. But until that is possible people will continue to look elsewhere. Additionally, I think to keep water affordable in the long-term, we will need to start to do dual plumbing and not treat the water we use for non-potable needs. It is crazy to treat water we use in irrigation and in toilets to such high water quality standards.

ImpishGrin2 karma

Could you talk more about how dual plumbing and different levels of water treatment would work? (I'm unfamiliar with this idea, but it sounds very interesting) Would creating such a system require substantial new infrastructure (something we're not especially good at building, let alone maintaining, sadly)?

LaurelFirestone4 karma

Yes, these kinds of systems would require significant new plumbing and distribution lines. It will be expensive to retro-fit existing communities, but it makes sense to do this in cases where we are having to replace leaky and dilapidated distribution lines and renovating or constructing new houses and buildings. Already in many areas new construction is putting in "purple pipe," which is a separate distribution line for things like irrigation which doesn't have to meet the same standards. There are also great ways to use "grey water" from homes and as a community.

baringlake4 karma

When I think about water in California, the drought comes to mind long before the issue of water contamination in the Central Valley or elsewhere. (I'm admittedly an East Coaster.) Do you think that ordering makes sense? If not, what needs to happen to flip the discussion so more of us are aware of the problems of unsafe water?

LaurelFirestone4 karma

There is an unprecedented opportunity to have national and even international attention on communities that have been invisible for decades and to channel resources to get solutions in place that will address both the water quality and water supply in the long term. Sometimes it has to get worse to get better. I also feel like it is so severe a health crisis at this point with no water at all that it deserves to have the attention its is getting, or more. That said, water contamination is extremely severe and affecting us all and has run under the radar. My hope is that we can get more attention to address these issues holistically. The two are so interconnected.

Sectoid_Gang_Rape3 karma

What's the message?

LaurelFirestone7 karma

Safe, clean and affordable drinking water is a basic human right! We have to address root causes of problems to achieve that - water protection, diversity in water leadership, and democratic water decision-making. And we have to look for shared solutions with our neighbors.

Sectoid_Gang_Rape3 karma

I find it crazy that a part of America is having such a struggle. How long until American kids replace African kids asking for water aid?

LaurelFirestone4 karma

We are already living in third world conditions in places like East Porterville. Here is a great story on current health conditions

swirladay3 karma

We've seen examples of water shortages creating stress within communities- there were many articles about "lawn shaming" last month. In your work in community-based advocacy, how do you get communities to come together around water issues, instead of it being divisive?

LaurelFirestone6 karma

There is a ton of finger-pointing going on. I do think sunshine is a good thing. It helps us all make good decisions and better manage a resource if we know what water is being used where. And we all need to do our part. We are all going to have to make sacrifices. But I think the more that we have good, transparent information on what water is needed and what water is being used where, the more we can ensure we can meet our collective basic needs. Right now CA has a law that makes utility usage information confidential and I think that needs to be changed. We FINALLY changed the law in CA just this month to make well logs public. So we can finally have public information on where wells are and how deep they are, which is vital for managing groundwater. That was a hard fought victory.

ImpishGrin2 karma

AFAIK, California has a tremendously complex set of arrangements and relationships when it comes to water sharing (among cities, farmers, residents, etc.). Who do you look to as a model, inspiration, or warning?

And how can California serve as a model, inspiration, or warning for others?

LaurelFirestone5 karma

There are really great examples of cities sharing water with neighboring communities - the one I mentioned before is a classic one - Farmersville extending its municipal water to Cameron Creek where residents had contaminated wells and wells were at risk of going dry. There are also a lot of cases (including Westlands Water District) where the irrigation district provides aqueduct water to meet local drinking water needs. Angiola Water District was looking at trading a groundwater well that had good water with the community of Alpaugh, which had only arsenic contaminated water. On the other hand, there are real challenges when one entity controls the water and provides it to another that has no control or say over the cost or amount that is supplied. There are many cases where small communities on a master meter from an irrigation district or City are forced to pay a lot ($120/month) for drinking water and they have no bargaining power to negotiate alternatives.