Newswise — The California State University’s Water Resources and Policy Initiatives (WRPI) has launched a grant-funded program this fall that gives students hands-on internship experience while helping to solve water problems impacting Southern California.

Funded by a $1.3 million grant from the Department of Water Resources, the Disadvantaged Communities Involvement Program offers Cal State Fullerton and Cal State San Bernardino students a unique educational experience at water agencies within the Santa Ana Watershed, which covers nearly 3,000 square miles of land in Orange, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties.

The three-year program is open to 20 students per year majoring in a variety of disciplines including engineering, geography and the social sciences. Students will get real world experience in construction planning, community outreach, and Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping.

“Fullerton and San Bernardino are in the heart of one of the largest watersheds in Southern California that faces many environmental challenges,” said WRPI Director Boykin Witherspoon. “These internships will put students back in their own communities, help prepare them for careers in water management, and empower water agencies to make improvements for the future.”

Interns will help identify and map communities in need of water management assistance, specifically the several homeless encampments along the Santa Ana River.

About 9,000 people are homeless within Orange, Riverside, and San Bernardino counties, according to the 2017 point-in-time count, with many of them living along the Santa Ana River and its tributaries. They often do not have safe or affordable access to water and the encampments are at risk from flooding.

Identifying them is the first step to ensuring the human right to water is upheld for people who are homeless, Witherspoon says. As encampments are identified, agencies work with community partners to develop ways to deliver fresh water.

“The homeless are a community that needs to be serviced by the same programs as other disadvantaged communities,” Witherspoon said. “Access to safe and clean drinking water can help eliminate some of the sanitation issues at encampments and the environmental problems that stem from them.” 

Under guidance from WRPI, students are also assisting the agencies in other ways including with community outreach and education and upgrading aging infrastructure. The multi-disciplinary approach allows for technical assistance across the life cycle of a project and gives students experience in the many areas of water management.

WRPI has also recently received funding from the California Energy Commission and other agencies to provide management assistance to the state’s most vulnerable communities.

WRPI leverages the expertise of about 250 researchers from throughout the CSU to help solve the state's complex water issues. Since the group was created in 2008, it has spearheaded a number of grants and initiatives aimed at educating California's future water professionals, expanding industry/university partnerships, and advancing water technology.​