Putting a human face on it

April 15, 2013

The California-based Community Water Center has spent years trying to shine a spotlight on agriculture runoff and groundwater contamination that has made water undrinkable in the state’s most productive agricultural regions. Yet in a nation where most people believe agriculture is good for the environment, raising awareness of the nuances of chemical fertilizer uptake and nitrate pollution can be a tough sell. The challenge gets even harder when you’re a scrappy grassroots group that represents farmworker communities, and you don’t have a staffer dedicated to communications.

As a nonprofit PR firm that works primarily on environmental and public health issues, Resource Media is no stranger to complicated and technical issues. From eutrophication to biofuels policy to ocean acidification, we’ve grappled with our fair share of wonky issues. And we know that the key to getting the attention needed is to sift through the data, charts and policy prescriptions and find the human element that unlocks the story for everyday Americans and makes people care about your issue.

Over the last few years, Resource Media has worked with Community Water Center to get their personal stories about the cost of nitrate contamination from fertilizer into the hands of reporters. And they have access to very powerful stories: brown water coming out of taps. Kids having to bring water when they slept over at friends’ houses.

Due to high nitrate levels in groundwater from ag runoff (mostly chemical fertilizer and manure), a quarter of a million people in California’s San Joaquin Valley and Salinas Valley on the central coast lack access to safe drinking water.

That’s a startling statistic in its own right, but the numbers hit home when you consider that something most of us take for granted – grabbing a glass and filling it with water from the tap – is a no-no for thousands of California families. Imagine growing up in a home where mom and dad repeatedly admonish, “Don’t drink the water.” Imagine the added cost and inconvenience of having to buy water for cooking, cleaning and drinking. And imagine this happening in one of the wealthiest parts of the United States, and in the nation’s most productive agricultural regions.

By keeping a laser focus on the tangible human costs of nitrate pollution and excess agriculture runoff, the Community Water Center has helped journalists shine a spotlight on the plight of thousands of families in California’s rural communities. That attention, and further lobbying by Community Water Center and other groups like Clean Water Action, was instrumental in the passage of legislation that required the state to act.

In late February, the California Water Resources Control Board issued a series of recommendations designed to address the lack of safe drinking water. The recommendations followed on the heels of a comprehensive report released by UC Davis confirming once and for all that ag runoff is the primary cause of nitrate contamination.

The recommendations include a fertilizer fee to generate funds needed to provide long-term solutions to impacted communities while also providing farmers with a clear incentive to use as little fertilizer as possible—thereby reducing runoff.

The Water Board recommendations are just that—recommendations—and there’s far more work to be done to turn them into reality. But the good news is that what was once invisible is now a well-known problem that has captured the attention of California’s political leaders.

Amy Frykman and Penelope Whitney

Photo credit: Paolo Vescia, CWC