More than 10 years ago, California acknowledged that reliable running water is a prerequisite for a healthy, prosperous and happy life when it recognized access to clean, safe and affordable water as a human right. Despite the policy’s aspirational intent, this right remains unrealized for communities throughout the state – particularly for Indigenous communities and communities of color living in rural, agricultural and unincorporated areas with limited infrastructure, resources and expertise.

According to a State Water Resources Control Board audit released in July 2022, close to one million Californians rely on 371 water systems that failed to meet water quality standards and contain high levels of arsenic, nitrates and other contaminants. At the same time, hundreds of other water systems remain at risk of failure.

Rural communities’ access to clean water is an issue with an incalculable human cost, which is why RCAC launched Agua4All in 2014 in partnership with The California Endowment. To date, this project made important strides – but much work still needs to be done. As part of ongoing efforts to create sustainable and long-term solutions to water inaccessibility, the Agua4All team conducts outreach, provides educational materials, promotes drinking water, implements interim improvements and installs drinking water access improvements in schools that serve disadvantaged communities statewide. Agua4All also facilitates the Bottled Water for Schools program, where eligible schools with water quality challenges receive regular five-gallon water bottle deliveries. Thanks to RCAC’s partnership with diverse private and public institutions, foundations and utilities, schools pay no additional out-of-pocket expenses for Agua4All products or services.

Nevertheless, there is still a great deal left to do.  In schools across the state, many students still lack access to clean, safe and drinkable water, which is essential for their mental and physical development. A recent study found that over 50 percent of school districts that tested found lead contamination in at least one of their on-campus drinking water fountains. Sodas, juices and sugary drinks remain common sights at schools, including in the lower-income and diverse communities most vulnerable to diet-related diseases and other health problems. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the gaps in clean water access and other disparities that predated and persisted during the crisis.

As the 2022–23 school year began, RCAC Rural Development Specialist and lead technical assistance provider Hazel Critchfield visited Palermo, California to see the impressive impacts of the Agua4All team’s work with the Palermo Union Elementary School District (PUESD). The district serves about 1,300 students in six schools across the greater Palermo, Honcut and Oroville area of Butte County, a large portion of whom are Latino. The district serves families with a median household income (MHI) of $42,500, which is far lower than the county’s $59,863 MHI. Approximately 74 percent of PUESD students are economically disadvantaged.

“These new fountains have greatly improved the indoor and outdoor use of each facility in Palermo, a small town where the middle school plays a major role in community activities.” ~Carlos M. Aguilar, Palermo Union’s Director of Maintenance, Operations and Transportation

In the past, Palermo Union had applied for and received funding from the State Water Resources Control Board’s Drinking Water for Schools Grant Program. However, the state did not fund all the fountains, reusable bottles and outreach materials the school district requested. Grant funding from the Chris Long Foundation enabled Agua4All to install four drinking fountains at Palermo Middle School, as well as drinking fountains at three elementary schools in the district. During RCAC’s visit to the middle school, students enthusiastically discussed the benefits of staying hydrated, and staff shared feedback on the project’s impact.

“Between classes, students and staff had a hard time getting drinks or filling their bottles because everything was so spread out,” said Carlos M. Aguilar, Palermo Union’s Director of Maintenance, Operations and Transportation. “These new fountains have greatly improved the indoor and outdoor use of each facility in Palermo, a small town where the middle school plays a major role in community activities.”

The grant also provided 2,888 BPA-free reusable water Nalgene bottles in two separate batches to PUESD. Nalgene approved bulk discount rates for Agua4All through promotional vendor TeamWorld. Reusable water bottles are rapidly gaining popularity and becoming as common among students as backpacks and lunchboxes.

“Each RCAC team member has been knowledgeable and excited about improving communities through a variety of programs, and they were the first to suggest how the Chris Long Foundation grant could benefit us,” Aguilar said. “In a low-income community, any help we can get is appreciated.”