Catching the water bug: A conversation with Brinda Sarathy
Brinda Sarathy is Professor of Environmental Analysis and Director of the Robert Redford Conservancy for Southern California Sustainability at Pitzer College.
In addition to being on the faculty at Pitzer, you are also directing the Redford Conservancy. Can you explain a bit about the Conservancy and your work there?
We're focused on engaging communities for undergraduate research and education on sustainability in Southern California. In the region, we worry about water scarcity, population growth coupled with growing economic inequality, and the disproportionate allocation of environmental burdens and benefits.
In light of these challenges, the Redford Conservancy was established in 2012 to facilitate action on Pitzer's sustainability commitments. The Conservancy is a leader in innovative academic programming and interdisciplinary education. We engage with collaborative approaches to environmental problem solving with an emphasis on the longevity of Southern California's natural environment and the wellbeing of the people that live here.
We started by concentrating on sustainability in our own backyard, and have been working on a new physical center next to the Bernard Biological Field Station. Planning the facility has meant thinking critically about how to live in tune with California's landscape. This process has also included a deep commitment to working with Tongva elders to create a site for gathering and celebration. Elders' input played a critical role in site landscaping, which is made up of plants that are not just native or endemic but that also have cultural value. Although the Tongva people are not federally recognized, we acknowledge our status as settlers on their ancestral lands and feel a responsibility and obligation to create more reciprocal relationships.
You have also developed an undergraduate course focused on water policy. How did that course come to be and what do you focus on?
There was a professor at Pitzer named Jack Sullivan who would start conversations by asking people if they knew where their water came from. When I started here, he would come to my office and try to persuade me to teach water issues, which were a gap in our curriculum. That was not my area of expertise at the time, but his enthusiasm was contagious and I “caught the water bug.” We began a memorial fund in his honor to support public lectures, develop student research and internships, and create workshops and field trips for faculty and students on water-related issues.
I later became a Water Leader with the Water Education Foundation, which gave me a good baseline for teaching my first course on water, “Hustle & Flow.” It is offered every 2-3 years and is always in high demand. To teach such a vast topic, I first focus on some of the "fundamentals.” This includes reviewing the California Doctrine and how water rights have been shaped by both prior appropriation and riparian rights. We look at legal cases, legislation, and California Constitutional amendments to understand how various branches of government have responded to changing water needs. We also examine the critical role of the state – at the local, state, and federal levels – in enabling big infrastructure projects.
Once students are familiar with the range of institutions and often overlapping management jurisdictions, they engage in role play exercises around Delta and Colorado River water challenges. These exercises are impactful because they invite students to take on diverse perspectives, and not necessarily those they may initially be empathetic to. This allows students to see how complicated California water issues are, and the reality and costs of competing interests.
For the latter half of the class, in addition to final group research projects, I invite professionals from the field to share their experiences. This is a way to help students think about working in the public sector, which, as everyone knows, has already been hit by a "silver tsunami"! I love helping students think about water careers, or simply be better informed in water conversations as they move into other careers.
I am always surprised how little most people know about their largely imported water supply and how much we take clean drinking water for granted. I look back, though, and realize that I belonged in the same category until I started the deep dive into teaching water issues. I now have a bit of an emotional reaction to broken sprinklers and green lawns in arid Southern California. I wonder how such practices are made possible by not knowing where our water comes from. Certainly, water retailers and agencies could do more outreach and education, although I'd also say there is more awareness around water conservation as a result of the drought.
In addition to directing the Conservancy and teaching, you also do research. What kinds of issues are you looking at right now?
I recently served as the lead editor on an academic press volume titled Inevitably Toxic?: Historical Perspectives on Contamination, Exposure, and Expertise. The book addresses processes by which toxic spaces have become normalized. On the one hand, there is an increasing awareness of how toxic some of landscapes we inhabit are. But on closer look, regulations have been pretty lax. We repeatedly see a tendency to minimize danger, and to reject the lived experience of those harmed by exposure to toxic substances, individuals who tend to come from disadvantaged communities.
I contributed a chapter to the book as well, focused on water pollution control in Southern California in the 1940-50's. At that time, government institutions were keen on supporting economic growth and industrial development. Words like “pollution” and “nuisance” were defined to allow for industrial waste discharge, and I argue that expertise was filtered through a lens that favored economic growth and that interpretations of scientific data were never simply objective, but rather, inherently political-economic in nature.
Last year, California state officials reported that chemicals widely used for decades in manufacturing and household goods had seeped into the public water supply. Known as “forever chemicals,” these compounds have been detected in water systems that serve potentially millions of Californians and are part of a public health crisis nationally. In mid-February, the Conservancy will be hosting a panel titled “Forever Chemicals: PFAS Contamination in California's Drinking Water & Beyond,” bringing together government officials, public health advocates, and technical experts to discuss this important issue.
Finally, I am interested in drinking water issues, but this is new and I am still scoping research questions. I am particularly interested in communities that are reliant on bottled water, often because they do not trust government assurances about tap water. I know many agencies working to build connections with these communities, but there is some work to be done on the ground to help to build relationships that might lead to more trust.