High School Hero Joins Water Movement

Meet Ryan Sinderbrand Who Went From Playing Video Games to Advocating For Clean Water

I love sharing hopeful stories, especially when it comes to water pollution. I’ve been aware of the water issues in the Coachella Valley for some time, and I’m so glad Ryan decided to take action. He researched this problem and found ways he could help, even as a high school student stuck at home during a pandemic. I hope you’re as inspired as I am reading his story.

By Ryan Sinderbrand

Being a high school junior during an unexpected global pandemic has been challenging and disappointing on many levels. Not only have I been forced to stay home and attend school from my computer, I have also been deprived of seeing my friends in person and having memorable high school experiences. 

At the inception of the pandemic, I found myself falling into a daily routine similar to most of my classmates. I would wake up, get through my Zoom class sessions, study, and then reward myself by playing online video games with my friends.  To be honest, I do not know what I would have done over the past year without video games.  

One day,  I came across a devastating news story about contaminated tap water in Newark. It was almost surreal. People in an entire city were being poisoned every time they turned on the tap to drink, cook, or even take a shower. To make matters worse, the government was not doing much about it. How could this be?   

One night, I decided to forego my usual video game routine and watch the movie Erin Brokovich to have a better understanding on the subject. I learned that she is an environmental advocate, who was responsible for a $333 million settlement against Pacific Gas and Electric for a Chromium- 6 tap water contamination affecting many families in Hinkley, California. The movie inspired me. It helped me realize how prominent the polluted tap water crisis is, and that playing video games in my free time seemed unproductive and unfair to communities in need of help. 

Tap Water Crisis

Over the past year, I began paying more attention to the tap water crisis in our country, and I learned that far too many communities are struggling to get a basic necessity, pure water. I also learned that each community faces its own unique problem with contaminants, including lead, nitrates, arsenic, rocket fuel, and more. The more I learned, the more inspired I became to take action and help the underrepresented in my home state, California. 

After I began my research, it wasn’t hard to find communities in need. I discovered that many mobile home parks in the Coachella Valley, an area not too far from Palm Springs, were impacted by arsenic in their well water. It turns out that much of the arsenic is naturally occurring and can be pulled up by wells. It is a toxic chemical that causes cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, impacts on cognitive development, and even death.

I then learned about the Oasis Mobile Home Park in the Coachella Valley in the city of Thermal. Oasis is an agricultural community located on Indigenous land, so state regulators lack jurisdiction there. However, according to the U.S. EPA, the park was found to have arsenic levels ten times higher than the safety limits in 2019. Yes, a known carcinogen is in the drinking water of innocent families. 

Shock & Action

I was shocked to learn that it has been two years since the EPA issued a no drink order for the park, and yet there has been no progress. This seemed like a place to extend a helping hand. But what could a junior in high school who is trapped at home do? I needed to be like Erin Brokovich and help people find a solution that could save their lives, while also providing education on the subject. 

After giving it much thought, I decided that water purifiers would be the best solution for the residents of Oasis. But many water filters don’t remove the most dangerous chemicals. The ones that do tend to be expensive, under-the-counter devices that require plumbing and installation.

After researching different water purifiers, I decided to contact a company called AquaTru, which makes an innovative countertop reverse osmosis water purifier that requires no installation or plumbing. Basically, it makes pure water right from the tap, and it removes the most dangerous chemicals found in tap water, including arsenic. 

Shortly after contacting the company, a representative called me and told me that AquaTru donates a portion of their profits each year to communities with polluted water. They agreed to donate water purifiers to Oasis if I could coordinate distribution to the mobile home community.

Now, I needed to figure out how to actually coordinate the distribution. Again, I’m trapped in my home and I don’t have access to a truck that would be required to bring the water filter units to the mobile home park.  

Connecting Other Orgs

So I began to research charitable organizations that have the resources necessary to pick up and deliver products to communities in need. It wasn’t easy to do. I must have contacted at least 20 organizations and none of them wanted anything to do with me; they just wanted money. But then I discovered Water Drop LA.  They are a 100-percent volunteer-run community organization with a mission to provide clean water and other necessities to communities facing water inaccessibility. They deliver bottled water to Skid Row in Los Angeles and to communities with unsafe tap water. They agreed to distribute the AquaTru units if I could help with the donation. I got a commitment from AquaTru to donate $23,500 worth of units and filters to an event at Oasis Mobile Home Park. 

The purifiers would provide a minimum of one year of pure water to the families who received the products, and it would save them money and prevent them from having to bring bottled water into their homes. This was amazing news!

On February 15th, 2021, the big day finally happened. When I arrived at Oasis, I watched in awe as the truck arrived with all of the water purifiers. It was a life- changing experience for me. Seeing the conditions these families lived in made me truly recognize how important taking action is for people who are struggling.  

At the event, I provided the residents with knowledge about the dangers of arsenic, and how the purifiers can save their lives. I demonstrated how to use the purifiers to make sure everyone really understood how to set them up and maintain them.

I was also able to interact with members of a number of other charitable organizations that attended the event to distribute bottled water, including Alianza Nacional De Campesinas, Pueblo Unido CDC, Líderes Campesinas, Unión De Polancos, Coachella Valley Volunteers in Medicine, and Mission San Jose.  Many of these organizations frequently go to Coachella to distribute bottled water, and I learned a lot talking with them.

When I asked Milly Treviño-Sauceda, the executive director and co-founder of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, about what the EPA was doing to help the residents of Oasis, she said, “We want them to move quicker... There is a lot of lack of attention towards farmworkers.”

Milly also told me that the EPA makes lots of excuses. For instance, they say that nobody is ever around when they try to check on an area. Milly says that this shows the lack of care for these communities. I think unless people take initiative to help these families, they will most likely suffer with terrible health issues. This is not okay. 

The feeling that I was a local hero that day was something I will never forget, and definitely a lot more rewarding than playing video games. The community was extremely grateful to receive these valuable water purifiers that will have a huge impact on their lives. Erin Brokovich helped me realize that I cannot sit around and expect change. I have risen to the challenge and I am not done.

Ryan Sinderbrand is a junior at Westlake High School in Thousand Oaks, California. He enjoys taking action to help communities with contaminated tap water, and he plans to study environmental sustainability and business in college.