Climate Crossroads: Aria Lee Cataño, Co-Founder, Executive Director, Water Drop LA

Climate Crossroads aims to highlight the intersection of climate change with other social issues in Los Angeles like homelessness, displacement, labor rights, high rents, community development and more. Through sharing these stories we hope to further Climate Resolve’s goal of centering people affected by climate change, and promote positive work being done to inspire hope and encourage action from readers.

The interview below has been edited for clarity.

Chase Engelhardt: Cool! Great! Well a little bit about Climate Crossroads. I don’t know if you have any questions about it, but basically we interview folks working on different but somehow similar issues that kind of, at least tangentially, touch on climate. Or that climate change is affecting their work. So thanks for your participation. The first question that I have is if you could tell us a little bit about the work that you do at Water Drop LA?

Aria Lee Cataño: Yeah, so Water drop LA started about a year ago during the pandemic in response to the city shutting off the temporary water fountains that they used to put in. And if you’ve been to Skid Row you’ll notice there aren’t many water fountains that are permanent that exist. So there are currently only seven or eight [hydration fountains]. They tend to not be in great condition. Not very safe to use especially during a pandemic and so what we were working on was just getting bottled water out to people so we tried to do it in gallons so that we could reduce plastic waste as much as we could. But we found that this potable water was in really high demand especially during the hotter months and that people were actually using their own money to go and purchase water most of the time. And of course if you’re unhoused these funds can add up really quickly. So we have been doing that every week for the last year and we’re on week 52 actually coming up this weekend.

Chase Engelhardt: Congrats! 

Aria Lee Cataño: Thank you and every weekend we get a 26-foot truck, fill it up with about seven pallets of water and then bring it directly to Skid Row with our volunteers. And outside of that we have also been working with unincorporated communities up in Oxford and Coachella because a lot of their water in Coachella is contaminated by arsenal because they are living on indigenous land on a reservation that’s not incorporated within the water district. So it’s not up to the same standards and the EPA has done basically nothing to fix that. So we do that once a month and then in Oxnard a lot of their water is contaminated by a pesticide runoff and so we will bring a truckload up there every month as well. So that’s a bit of the work that we do. It’s gotten… our summer is our most busy time because the heat island effect is very prevalent in Skid Row in particular just because of the lack of tree coverage. I think last year we saw some really high temperatures in September that went past 115 in downtown LA and due to the lack of rain in this last year we’re expecting a similar level of intensity.

Chase Engelhardt: Yeah! Thanks for that overview and I think that kind of leads into my next question pretty nicely. Extreme heat is one of sort of the most universal and largest climate threats for Los Angeles and I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about how you came up with the idea of Water Drop and to kind of tie that in with the experiences that you see unhoused folks dealing with when it comes to heat in particular?

Aria Lee Cataño: So we were actually just fundraising on our personal social media platforms saying “hey”  we went out passing out food to some folks that were living in front of City Hall and the one thing that they all kept on asking us for was water. And we hadn’t thought to bring any. So we just started posting on our social media platforms with friends saying “hey, we’re gonna try to go back tomorrow if we can just donate a dollar it’ll help us buy a gallon.” Then that just spiraled basically and we ended up raising about $10,000 in the first week and then by week two it was like $20k and ultimately by the end of the summer had raised about $500k. So we honestly kind of got pushed into starting a non-profit because we didn’t want to get taxed.

Heat wise you really see the impact of heat. I mean people are living outdoors right and so they’re outside every day regardless of how hot it is. The City does have indoor cooling centers but those cooling centers are all miles away from skid row and if you don’t have a car walking two three miles away in extreme heat, if you’re already fatigued, is not going to be a solution. So just with high heat exposure on top of existing health conditions sometimes addiction these are all things that can just make the risk of heat stroke a lot higher. Especially if you’re not drinking enough water or hydrating.

Chase Engelhardt: Yeah, definitely! Thank you! I think it’s important for folks to hear wrap their heads around what unhoused folks are going through when it’s hot outside. When other folks are able to be indoors or in shade. So thank you. Yeah, thanks for that. So the next question is hydration is really fundamental to keeping people safe in the heat. Like you just mentioned, you need to drink enough water to avoid heat stroke but I saw on your website that you’re also focused on long-term solutions. Could you speak to that briefly? 

Aria Lee Cataño: So since the beginning of us starting our org our goal has been to not exist. I think if you’re familiar with the non-profit industrial complex, where non-profits and employees are essentially existing and staying in operation at the expense of people and of their suffering. If people continue to suffer the non-profit will exist and if they do not oftentimes the non-profit would lose its funding. So I think in protest of that we ideally would have the city put in infrastructure for clean water so whether that looks like water fountains that are actually well-maintained, that are higher tech, that are sanitized regularly, that are cleaned. Or whether that looks like, in San Francisco they installed these pipes that kind of release more of a stream of water because at the end of the day you don’t just need water for drinking. You need it to bathe. So getting infrastructure installed that would look something like that. Having proper cooling centers. Things like that would ultimately help to be a more long-term solution. Of course at the end of the day we recognize you need housing but at the rate that LA is going with housing it’s not looking like that’s going to be plausible. So our take is just in the interim before we get long-term water accessibility solutions. The direct action also matters. While we push for legislative action and City action we can’t forget that people are still living in this reality every day and that we can’t just turn the other way.

Chase Engelhardt: Yeah, that’s great! Thank you! My last question is what gives you hope for your work in the future? And how about the climate?

Aria Lee Cataño: The climate … oh my god is there any hope? Oh let’s see. That is a really hard question. I think

… I don’t know if I have an answer to that. I don’t know if that’s reflective of me being a jaded Gen Z but…

Chase Engelhardt: Thinking about the work that you do, what keeps you coming and making you feel like you’re moving in a direction that you’re kind of having that contribution?

Aria Lee Cataño: I think at the end of the day it comes down to individual direct action and individual people mobilizing and recognizing that there are these problems that are far beyond any one of us as individuals but if we all chip in we can … we’re not going to solve it … but we can mitigate the impact that it’ll have on us and on people who do not have the same privileges as we do. So I think the one thing that keeps me going is just that recognition that there are people that are willing to do that. That are willing to step in. That we can play a role in teaching kids and youth that that’s a similar mindset that we need to have. One thing that I’ve noticed about my parents generation vs Gen X is they have this mentality of  “these problems are so… they’ve been building up for years. They’ve existed for years. What can I do that’ll actually end up making a difference?” And what I see with my generation is the rejection of that notion. Yes, these are problems that will not go away in our generation but does that mean that we have to stand idle? No. So I think that’s the one thing that keeps going is just that people will continue recognizing that that they’ll continue looking for ways that they can chip away and that it’s all of us more of us try to chip away together we can take actual strides forward 

Chase Engelhardt: Yeah, I agree! That’s great!


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