Fresno Bee: Commentary: Access to clean water remains a major issue in the COVID-19 pandemic

As the world continues to grapple with the most devastating public health crises in modern history, the San Joaquin Valley has been hit particularly hard, resulting in mass disarray. Small rural regions and underserved communities are now experiencing threefold the challenges that existed prior to the pandemic.

Pre-pandemic life for the average family in the Valley was already marred with an unemployment rate above the national average, inadequate access to clean water as well as limited health-care services.

Fast forward to 2020: 4.5 million Californians have filed for unemployment benefits since mid-March. So you may ask, how’s the Valley doing? Unfortunately, all the pre-pandemic challenges still apply with regard to clean water and jobs, and now our most basic human needs are undergoing additional threats.

For example, just last year, reports announced that Fresno, Tulare and Kings counties made it at the top of the list for the nation’s most successful agriculture producing counties. Supplying a third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts, the Central Valley as a whole is a critical region for the nation and helps fuel California’s No 1 industry. Despite being considered the mecca for food production and farmworkers being deemed by the governor as “essential,” the delivery of a clean water supply continues to still be a big question mark in California’s plans.

Underrepresented communities including the Latino, Hmong, Vietnamese, Filipino and others who operate small family farms are also raising their voices on clean water supply. Furthermore, through an effort to collaboratively address water scarcity known as the Blueprint, participants are acknowledging the need for the state to better manage our groundwater supply and focus on the responsible implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA).

Recently, a report by University of California Berkeley economists David Sunding and David Roland-Holst show that the California economy will suffer unless responsible, balanced water reforms and new programs are enacted in an effort to achieve groundwater sustainability goals while addressing water scarcity in the San Joaquin Valley.

As outlined in the report, permanent economic impacts will include the loss of 85,000 full-time jobs and $2.1 billion in employee wages across California. Moreover, up to 1 million acres of productive farmland will be permanently fallowed in the San Joaquin Valley, representing one-fifth of all acres under cultivation in the region.

Mitigating the economic and human impact of California water policy will require a suite of common-sense investments that include infrastructure and other critical programs. Many of these investments are being pursued and discussed in the San Joaquin Valley by Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSA), NGOs, and other organizations. In order to be successful, this solution-set must be developed and supported by a broad coalition of stakeholders.

Some solutions could be more challenging to accept; namely strategic land conversion. Without dismissing the impacts to the economy and communities, this community recognizes that land fallowing is likely to be a part of the solution. There is also a dire need for collaboration as we pursue mutually beneficial attempts to mitigate the impacts of water scarcity on key industries in the region.

Click here for a published version of the Op Ed.