Drought-shaming could become a popular pastime in California’s driest summer. Egregious water wasters, especially the ones with massive lawns and high public profiles, are getting called out by reporters and humbled on social media. There’s something to be said for bringing the heedless well-to-do low, but make no mistake, it is the poor and disadvantaged who are truly demeaned as water becomes more precious.
In California’s most marginalized communities, especially in rural parts of the Central Valley, the drought is compounding a groundwater contamination crisis. Backyard and community wells are running dry. The American Red Cross is poised to deliver emergency drinking water in some counties. Meanwhile, water bills are going up faster than inflation and reaching unaffordable levels for the poorest. Researchers call this water poverty — a struggle to meet one’s daily water needs — and by some estimates, 1 million people in California lack access to safe and affordable water.
I know from personal experience the physical and emotional toll water poverty exacts. For the first 12 years of my life, my family lived without running water or indoor plumbing. We lived just 10 miles from the White House in a black neighborhood in Alexandria, Va., and in the late 1950s and ‘60s, segregation extended beyond public schools and movie theaters and where you could live. It also meant that the city had never brought water or sewer pipes to our neighborhood.
Instead, we had an outhouse in the backyard and got water from a small well we shared with another family. Water was a commodity that never could be taken for granted. Too much of each day was consumed with securing and allocating our scarce water supply. The water level in the well fluctuated, especially during the summer, requiring ever more stringent restrictions on water usage.
As soon as we were old enough to carry a pail, my older sister Vickie and I took turns going to the well and lugging home two heavy buckets of water for cooking, drinking and bathing. We dreaded all the extra trips required on laundry day.
My siblings and I were scarred in different ways by the smelly and scary outhouse. I willed myself to develop a strong bladder. I would go thirsty rather than risk needing a trip to the outhouse after dark. Vickie was so scared of the outhouse that she was constantly constipated and forced to swallow spoonfuls of castor oil. A younger sibling — whose bunk was above mine — became a chronic bed wetter.
In elementary school I became a water thief. I kept a small mayonnaise jar in my lunch box that I would fill at the school’s drinking fountain when no one was looking. I hid my personal water stash under my bed to drink when the family’s communal supply got low. Water was so precious that I worried I’d be found out and thrown in jail. Then I learned that even prisoners had toilets.
But more than anything, water poverty stunted my dreams. I’m not sure what other 8-year-old girls imagined for their future, but I was intent on two things: running water and an indoor bathroom. Every wish I made — on my birthday, in my bedtime prayers or in a note to the Easter Bunny or Tooth Fairy — was a plea for a life with adequate water and no outhouse. My prayers got particularly desperate when we pulled a dead cat from the well. For months after that, my father had to load up the family car with jugs to fill at my grandparents’ house two miles away.
Our water poverty nearly derailed my education too. My sister and I were plaintiffs in a lawsuit to desegregate our all-white neighborhood school. Tutors volunteered to come to our house to prepare us to attend what was a more rigorous school. But my mother balked. Pressed by a young, black community organizer to explain her resistance, she said, “What am I supposed to do when one of them white folks asks to use the bathroom?” Shame about our living conditions nearly eclipsed my mother’s commitment to the civil rights movement. (A compromise was found: Most of the tutoring sessions were held at the home of another family involved in the court case. Still, I rarely invited friends from my new school over, sharing my mother’s embarrassment.)
I was 12 years old when we moved to a brand-new house with running water. I remember turning the faucet on and off, on and off, just to make sure it really worked. I fought with my siblings over whose turn it was to take a bath. I hung out for the hours in the bathroom. I could finally get past our daily needs — and dare to dream for something more than water.
California’s historic drought has us talking about access to water — who gets it, where to store it, how much it should cost — for the first time in 50 years. Many of us have taken water for granted and can use much less. At the same time, empty wells and desperate drilling should remind us how vulnerable many households are. Access to water is a human right, even in a drought. Where people live, their race or their economic condition shouldn’t determine whether they have water to drink, clean air to breathe, food to eat — or dreams to dream.
Judy Belk is president and chief executive of the California Wellness Foundation. CalWellness.org.