Thoughts on Switzer Fellows Retreat in Central Valley - March 2011

Posted by Lissa Widoff on Thursday, April 7 2011


The March 2001 Switzer Fellows Retreat in Central Valley gave us an introduction to places and issues that deserve our collective interest and attention. We learned a great deal about a range of water issues in the San Joaquin River system including ecosystem and salmon restoration in the river and the scarce access to clean, safe drinking water for nearby farmworker communities. With only an introduction to the statewide, regional and grassroots aspects of these issues, the Fellows found that crossing disciplines, sectors and perspectives can contribute solutions to these issues.

While there is much to digest from the retreat, there were a number of themes that emerged in terms of how the Switzer Network can follow-up and possible avenues for collaboration. Fellows are interested in finding ways to contribute ideas and to help local organizations in the region, especially Seville and other communities like it, that are so close to billion dollar infrastructure for clean irrigation water yet lack a safe drop to drink.Some of the ideas that surfaced for collective action and follow through include:

  • Exploring the contacts we have with existing water boards and political/power structures to use our influence in service of the extreme needs we saw not only for safe drinking water infrastructure, but long-term policy solutions.
  • Switzer Fellow engagement in San Joaquin River management programs is an opportunity to insert human/local community dimensions where it has been otherwise absent.
  • Although technological solutions were discussed as an immediate need, the sustainable solutions will require addressing power imbalance, community –based approaches to technology and a longer-term policy strategy to serve all communities. By the time of our reflections on Sunday a.m., many fellows were poised to consider bold options – like accessing the water in the SJR canal a mere mile away, and figuring out how the communities can gain allocation rights, much like other water rights projects that have been put to use for ecological benefit.
  • Contributing our love for rivers and our educational, ecological and leadership experience to support community efforts to connect young people with the river and to foster young and emerging environmental leaders in the region. Perhaps an epic river journey through the San Joaquin River? We believe the river restoration need not be only about salmon.
  • Serve as a scientific and policy resource for local organizations, perhaps the Community Water Center and their partner organizations as they link their grassroots strategies with longer-term and higher level sustainable solutions, not only for safe drinking water for these communities but mechanisms for reliable community infrastructure. Perhaps Fellows can assist with policy strategy as needed or in a focused meeting to that end.
  • Fellows and Network members can be a scientific and policy resource for the Fresno Regional Foundation as it develops its environmental grantmaking program.
  • Write an op-ed on our observations and viewpoint. This is timely given the recent attention by the UN representative on human rights to the communities we visited and the Switzer Network News stories under production.
  • Undertake a Social Network Analysis that can map our connections and issues to facilitate greater exchange among Switzer Fellows and partner organizations.

This summary is an invitation for Fellows and colleagues to share resources and knowledge. We have set up a google group list to facilitate communication among Fellows and colleagues wishing to stay in touch regarding Central Valley issues. Contact to be added to the list or send a request via Google groups. To send a message to the group:

Here are a few other resources that were identified during the retreat. Please add to this as we collectively explore avenues for collaboration on these complex issues and with local community leadership and organizations.

Fresno Bee article on UN Commission on Human Rights visit to Seville

Organizations leading on drinking water issues in Central Valley

Community Water Center

Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment

CA Rural Legal Assistance:

Env. Justice Coalition on Water

Pacific Institute

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