CVIndependent

Tue04282015

Last updateWed, 27 Aug 2014 10am

Local Issues

Agua4All is a program with a catchy, informative name and an inarguably laudable objective: delivering safe drinking water to every resident of the state, regardless of location or income level.

The program aims to provide this necessity via its proprietary water-filling stations, which are being installed in schools and community-meeting areas like parks, youth clubs and libraries. For too many Californians, the only accessible source for safe drinking water is commercially sold bottled water—an unaffordable solution for many underprivileged families.

Currently in its pilot phase, Agua4All is focusing on disadvantaged communities in southern Kern County—and right here in the eastern Coachella Valley.

“The original idea was actually conceived by The California Endowment, which has been the major funder of the program,” said Sarah Buck, rural development specialist for the Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC), which is charged with supervising and coordinating efforts around this program. “They have given us the opportunity and responsibility of designing it in a way that makes sense. Once this current pilot phase is over, we can replicate it and continue this work throughout all of rural California.”

From January through early March, the RCAC ran a fundraising campaign, the second in the last year, on the Indiegogo crowdfunding platform. Unfortunately, the donation response was dismal, with just $575 raised.

“I think the first one was more successful because it had a very targeted goal and message,” said Buck; the first effort raised more than $5,600. “For the second Indiegogo campaign, The California Endowment thought that because (celebrity chef) Jamie Oliver was going to be introducing our campaign while making an appearance in Sacramento, the campaign might take off because of that. Although the campaign didn’t raise very much money, we did have a huge bump in awareness and social-media chatter about the program.”

Fortunately, Agua4All has received support from other corners. “We have been able to secure other funding from a number of foundations and banks,” said Buck. “For instance, we got funding from the Weingart Foundation for the work that we’re doing in the eastern Coachella Valley. We’ve gotten funding from the California Bank and Trust, from Rabobank, and we got almost $450,000 in funding from the state of California, with the support of the State Water Resources Control Board, to put in arsenic filters for Kern County’s city of Arvin, where they have arsenic in the water. So we’ve been able to leverage the endowment’s original funds to access a lot of other different types of funds.”

Specifically in the eastern Coachella Valley, the RCAC is excited about how the program is expanding rapidly.

“We have definitely fostered a great relationship and partnership with the Coachella Valley Unified School District,” Buck said. “They’ve been very supportive, and the vast majority of the taps (water-bottle-filling stations) that are going into the Coachella Valley are in the schools. We’ve started by concentrating on the schools that are in the unincorporated areas, especially because a lot of those kids, when they go home, don’t necessarily have safe drinking water. So we have been putting our stations in a lot of the schools in Thermal, Mecca and Oasis. Toward the end of this pilot phase, we’ll probably be putting some into West Shore or the city of Coachella.”

As of the deadline for this story, the RCAC had installed 11 water-bottle-filling stations in Coachella Valley locations through Agua4All.

“Our original goal from The California Endowment was to put 60 stations into the Coachella Valley, and 60 into Kern County,” Buck stated. “So we’re on the way there. They just got a new order at the Coachella Valley Unified School District. Every weekend, they’re putting in some of the new units. … They just finished up with John Kelley (Elementary) School (in Thermal), and they are starting … with the Cahuilla Desert Academy.”

There are other facets to the Agua4All program. Those include the distribution of free plastic water bottles, provided by Nalgene, to potential users of the safe water being provided.

“We have formed a fantastic partnership with Nalgene (a maker of a wide variety of BPA-free plastic bottles),” Buck said. “They have donated 1,500 bottles so far, and they are committed to donating at least 5,000 bottles for this pilot project. We’ve been doing a purchase and donation match. Also, they’ve given us a hugely reduced price to make it affordable. We got funding from the Weingart Foundation to buy extra bottles, and those will go into the schools in Coachella Valley.”

Another valuable relationship for Agua4All is a tie to first lady Michelle Obama’s Drink Up campaign, which is designed to promote increased water consumption by individuals to improve their health.

“All of the safe-drinking-water-filling stations that we are installing will carry both our logo and the Drink Up logo,” stated Buck.

These two initiatives share common goals, too. “We’re intending to do a lot of water promotion, education and outreach on why it’s important to drink safe water instead of soda,” Buck said. “We’re trying to get a behavioral change in motion, because a lot of people in these communities haven’t had accessible safe drinking water for their whole lives, so getting them to trust that the tap water won’t give them cancer is going to be a challenge. But it’s something we know is really important. We want these communities to drink more water and be healthier overall.”

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