Emily Rooney, president of the Agricultural Council of California, is a member of the advisory group for California’s Safe and Affordable Funding for Equity and Resilience (SAFER) drinking water program. She spoke with Agri-Pulse about an unexpected coalition that helped bring about the 2019 law and why the issue is important to agriculture.

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What is the intersection of drinking water, agriculture and environmental justice?

In the state of California, there's about a million people without safe, affordable drinking water. You have rural areas, urban areas, all over the place, with different environmental and other issues as to why folks don't have access to clean water. There's infrastructure issues, there's environmental issues, there's a whole suite of problems or challenges. Because agriculture has such a strong presence in the rural environment—we live there, we work there, our employees are there—our perspective has been on the rural side of the equation, mostly. We started working with the environmental justice community to try to address the issue from an accessibility standpoint. We went through different iterations of potential legislation and funding scenarios and, ultimately, we ended up where we are now. Gov. Newsom actually took some general fund dollars along with dollars from the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund. Now we have the SAFER Fund at the state water board.

What were you mainly hearing from members that led to the Ag Council deciding to be a leader on this question of safe, accessible drinking water?

We were worried that we were going to come up with this patchwork of solutions that wasn't going to be cohesive. We were looking for state dollars to dedicate to the effort. And because there's so much in the rural communities at stake for us, we just wanted to make sure we were part of the solution and trying to resolve the issue. The state of California, we're on the leading edge of all these environmental solutions and yet we have a million people without clean drinking water. It's a travesty. We really needed to leapfrog on this issue and show some leadership.

How did the Ag Council come to collaborate with environmental justice groups?

What we recognized, and the environmental justice folks would agree, was litigation was not the way to go through this, because you'd end up with money spent on lawyers and not money spent on solutions. That's why we ended up at the table together.

Did you get pushback from within your own ranks?

There's always questions about the kind of work we're doing and the groups we were working with have not always been friendly to agriculture. So a lot of questions initially, but I think now folks 'get it' a little bit more. […] There's an acceptance that the better we get at overall water issues, the better we will get in all water issues, right? So even if it's started on drinking water, maybe this relationship can help build other bridges to solve other problems. That proactive mindset is where my membership came from.

Do you think there’s an opening for more coalitions?

We were just on another call with them just two weeks ago about another water issue. The environmental justice communities are doing a lot of good work in the rural areas and we obviously have a very strong interest in those areas. I see potential collaboration as a big opportunity for us. We're constantly trying to evaluate how we work with the EJ folks that have a presence in rural areas so we can solve some of these problems in a cohesive way.

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Were people who came together to work on this surprised that there were so many Californians who didn't have safe drinking water?

When I came into this, I didn't know it was a million people. There was surprise coming into the issue about the depth of the problem. And then there was a surprise when we came out with potential solutions. Nobody thought we could agree to things. There was a big shock there, too.

Have you heard any specifics from a rural ag community with drinking water issues that a concrete solution seems now to be on the way?

Each town has a very unique solution, let's just put it that way. For some of them it’s as simple as just consolidating with a local irrigation or water district. But some others are going to require, and have required, water stations and bringing in water from alternative locations. It really depends on geography, topography.

What's giving you pause right now about implementation?

I'm always concerned about the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund, its stability and ability to continue to commit dollars to this effort. […] And, I'm worried that we're going to try to bite off more than we can chew because it's a massive problem. But there are ways to make incremental achievements to solve a lot of the problems. As an example, part of the million people also includes, I think it's roughly 300 schools. And I know at one point, Secretary Blumenfeld, from Cal EPA, was focused on trying to at least get the schools piece addressed. That's one approach that would be another good approach. How do you find the incremental wins? It's an issue that needs to be resolved. I feel very strongly about that.

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