Fireside Chat: Laurel Firestone Talks About California’s Promise of a Human Right to Safe Drinking Water

/ Blog Post

Laurel Firestone, 2004 Fellow, is a member of the California State Water Resources Control Board. She is the co-founder and former co-executive director of the California-based Community Water Center.

Laurel Firestone
Photo of Laurel Firestone

Why did you become an Equal Justice Works Fellow? 

During law school, I spent time in Brazil working on the intersection of environment, poverty, and human rights issues in underserved communities. I knew when I graduated I wanted to work on the same problems in my home state and was looking for the right fit. With my Equal Justice Works Fellowship, I was able to work with The Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment (CRPE).  As a young attorney, I was hungry to learn about the real legal needs of a community. A two-year Fellowship seemed like the perfect amount of time to learn about an underserved region, in order to meaningfully support long-term systemic change.

Tell us a bit about your Fellowship project at The Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment.

CRPE had relationships with leaders in low-income communities and communities of color throughout the San Joaquin Valley that were facing a variety of water challenges. After noticing that community after community did not have access to safe drinking water, I partnered with Susana De Anda to develop a new program focused on drinking water challenges throughout the valley. Through legal advocacy and assistance, we helped communities access funding, enforce drinking water standards, advocate for drinking water free from pollutants, and gain accountability for information regarding the safety of their water. Ultimately, we found that the work was more significant than solely a two-year project, and the program became an organization, the Community Water Center (CWC). Today, the CWC supports communities throughout southern San Joaquin Valley and northern Central Coast.

What is your proudest moment as a Fellow?

Early on, I represented a community group that challenged a local water ordinance. The ordinance said that households had to pay up to an additional $600 if non-approved family members or friends lived in the home. It was very arbitrary; for example, your grandmother could live with you, but not your aunt. Despite being framed as a capacity charge, it had nothing to do with the amount of water used. The purpose was to regulate tenants having friends and family live with them. Without legal assistance, no one knew the ordinance was unconstitutional. I worked with residents to form a group, and they organized around 300 residents to come and express concern at the next board meeting, where I also testified on the legal rules. The group effort resulted in repealing the ordinance.

What inspired you to get into water policy? Why are you passionate about environmental justice?

Water impacts our lives in the most intimate ways—it touches our homes, schools, and businesses. Due to the vital role water plays in our lives, everyone should have access to safe and affordable drinking water. But the reality is that access to water (or lack thereof) reflects fundamental challenges we have in our country, like structural racism, climate change, and wealth inequality. Water justice issues are a concrete way to change structures that otherwise feel abstract and overwhelming. Fifteen years working on these issues has shown me that transparency and accountability can make disenfranchised residents feel empowered within the democratic structure.

How have you helped to ensure that communities have access to clean drinking water?

When Susana De Anda and I co-founded CWC, we felt like this was an issue that needed a sustained capacity to address it. We wanted the solution to address the root cause of why so many communities in California do not have safe drinking water. After my Fellowship, we continued to organize and advocate with community partners. On a local level, we coordinated a regional coalition of communities called AGUA to advocate at the regional and state level. Out of our Sacramento office, we helped pass the first Human Right to Water law in the nation and codified it as state policy. Additionally, we worked to secure hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure and technical assistance funding for low-income communities’ drinking water needs. We also advocated for a regulatory permit program to regulate fertilizer and dairy manure discharge in groundwater. Throughout our work, we developed regional participatory planning processes that assisted residents in being appointed or running boards of local water districts.

Lastly, what do you hope to accomplish as a member of the California State Water Resources Control Board?

I was told to continue to do what I do, and I am following that advice. I want to make California a state that lives up to the promise of the Human Right to Water. Our board and those who help govern water should be accountable and beneficial to the communities we serve.

At Equal Justice Works, we are proud of Laurel’s work to ensure that all Californians have access to safe and affordable drinking water. Learn more about how our other Fellow alums have created a lasting impact in their communities.

Water impacts our lives in the most intimate ways—it touches our homes, schools, and businesses.

Laurel Firestone /
Equal Justice Works Fellow Alumna

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow