Water Injustice In California


California is infamous for its perpetual drought. In 2016 alone, 87 public water systems applied for drought assistance funding (Feinstein et al., 2017). ABC News reports that “California water agencies that serve 27 million people will get just 5% of what they requested from the state to kick off 2023” (Ronayne, 2022). Despite this extreme severity, drought in California is totally normalized. One interview revealed that “It’s weird, when you talk to people that have lived here all their lives, they’re kinda like, ‘yeah, whatever’ … ‘we’ve never had water’ … it just it never rains here, and they’re used to that and they get their water from somewhere else and always have” (Becker & Sparks, 2020). Improving the understanding of the spatial aspects of drought in California will help to inform ongoing drought mitigation and response. This project takes a social justice approach and illuminates the areas most affected by and vulnerable to drought. There is a focus on drinking water because clean drinking water is a basic human right. Ultimately, this project aims to answer the question “how is drinking water injustice in California spatially distributed?”

Answering this question can help city planners predict where and how to support citizens. It can also help citizens decide where they want to live based on water security and quality. The intended audience for this project is California policymakers. Water management needs to be a holistic process that accounts for agriculture, cities, fires, water injustices, ecosystem health, and water supply and demand fluctuations. Above all, water management needs to focus on drinking water.

The perpetual drought conditions in California have led to severe water injustice. For example, one study found that “more than 370 000 Californians rely on drinking water with average contaminant concentrations at or above regulatory standards for 1 or more of the contaminants considered. Higher proportions of people of color were associated with greater drinking water contamination” (Pace et al., 2022). Policymakers need to take action to solve this injustice. Although the primary audience for this project is policymakers, all Californians have a responsibility to understand drought and its relationship to water injustices. As such, California residents should read and understand the information provided in this project.


The statistical and geographic analysis language R was used to assemble this project. Data was imported from .csv and .shp files to be analyzed. For .csv files with geographic data, the coordinates() function from the sp package was used to convert numerical data to spatial data. Data wrangling was done using dplyr. The sf package was used to manage and analyze spatial data. For data visualization, tmap was used for mapping and ggplot2 was used for graphing. Finally, the units and vein packages were used to manage data units.

This webpage was created using R markdown.

Data Sources

CalEnviroScreen 3.0 provided the backbone for this project. This dataset contains data on key socioeconomic and environmental indicators for every census tract in California. This data comes from the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. CalEnviroScreen 3.0 was published in January of 2017. This project uses data on overall CES score, water quality, unemployment, and income. (California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, 2017).

Water toxicity data was acquired from the California Open Data Portal. This dataset was collected and assembled by the California Environmental Data Exchange Network. This dataset was created in August of 2019. It contains information from field, sediment and water column data collected from freshwater, estuarine, and marine environments. The resource seeks to include all publicly available data on surface water contaminants in California. The primary measurement from the dataset used in this project is the SigEffectCode column, which reports whether the sample exceeds EPA toxicity guidelines. The dataset is extremely large, with over one million observations. (California Environmental Data Exchange Network, 2019).

Drought data was acquired from the U.S. Drought Monitor. The USDM has many drought datasets available, so the most recent dataset was used: November 29, 2022. This is a resources jointly compiled by the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The dataset includes national data on drought classified into five levels. The following table provides information on drought levels. (U.S. Drought Monitor et al., 2022).