By Britney Zaparolli and Anne Bremer
In spring 2019 The Watershed Project conducted a water needs assessment in the community of North Richmond to receive direct feedback from residents on their water-related concerns for the community. Community members expressed many needs, including reduced flooding during the rainy season; more safe, accessible outdoor places for recreation; water conservation measures; and resilience to sea level rise. Community members also expressed a strong desire to find out more about the safety and quality of their tap water at home. North Richmond’s drinking water, provided by East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD), comes from the Mokelumne River watershed in the Sierra Nevada mountains–some of the best source water in the country. Despite this, we found that most residents don’t trust the safety of their tap water, and some have experienced problems with it.
This finding was not unique to North Richmond. While The Watershed Project was working in North Richmond, outreach partner organizations were conducting similar assessments in low-income communities in Oakland, Palo Alto, Marin County, Sonoma County, Vallejo, Bay Point, Pittsburg, Antioch, Hayward, San Jose, and Bayview Hunters Point with similar results. Despite each of these communities having different water providers and sources, the findings from the needs assessments showed a consistent concern from community members across the region about the quality of their tap water. The Bay Area’s Disadvantaged Communities and Tribal Involvement Program (DACTIP), funded by the California Department of Water Resources through Proposition 1’s Integrated Regional Water Management (IRWM) Program, responded to this concern by pursuing a regional tap water quality testing initiative, in partnership with the outreach partners, municipalities, utilities and other stakeholders. This project aims to provide clarity on how community concerns compare with lab results, whether tap water is safe to drink, how water in North Richmond compares to other communities, and how it compares to the quality of bottled water.
We began testing tap water quality in February. We started by reconnecting with several members of the community who expressed interest and concern in better understanding their water, and inviting additional community members to participate. We are in the process of collecting samples of tap water from 20 different Richmond residences. These samples are sent to SimpleLab, where they are tested for levels of chlorine, alkalinity, pH, hardness, fluoride, and other contaminants. We also completed surveys with participants to learn about their individual experience with their water supply, and to respond to any other concerns they might have regarding their water supply.
From visiting our participants, we have had the opportunity to connect with people all over the community of Richmond, with the shared goal of understanding their water. We have learned that there are many different ways in which people use and interact with water. A striking similarity between most of our participants is that very few of them actually drink their tap water. Some use tap water with filters, others use it only for cooking, and some don’t use it at all. Bottled water purchases are very prevalent among all our participants, which emphasizes why it’s important that we learn whether the quality of bottled water is any better than the tap water supply.
As we begin to receive the lab results over the next few months, we will share the results with the participating residents, compare the results from the water samples, and share the findings with the greater North Richmond community. Additionally, our results in North Richmond will be compared with results in the rest of the DACTIP program communities to produce recommendations for the Bay Area region. We expect the results to indicate whether there are, in fact, impairments to drinking water in North Richmond, and whether those impairments are the result of public infrastructure, source water, or other issues such as aging pipes in homes. From there, we plan to work with our partners to identify what our next steps can be to addressing this concern within our community.