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CalMatters: Drinking water of a million Californians fails to meet state requirements 

By Rachel Becker, CalMatters Network
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Copco Lake water system updated April 23th, 2024

Almost 400 water systems serving nearly a million Californians don’t meet state requirements for safe and reliable drinking water supplies — and fixing them would cost billions of dollars.

Image source: California State Water Board

More than two-thirds of these failing water systems serve communities of color, and more than half are in places struggling with poverty and pollution, according to an annual assessment released today by the State Water Resources Control Board. 

These water systems, as of Jan. 1, failed to provide water “which is at all times pure, wholesome, and potable,” as required. Some violated drinking water standards for chemicals, bacteria, taste or odor. Others rely on bottled water, or have failed to meet treatment, monitoring or other requirements. 

Even more Californians, around 1.54 million,are served by hundreds of water systems considered at risk of failing, state officials said, and nearly 144,000 wells were threatened by encroaching contaminants and shortages.

Failing water systems span the state — from tiny Del Norte County on the Oregon state line to San Diego and Imperial counties near the border with Mexico. They cluster densely in the Central Valley and along the Central Coast, where groundwater overuse, agricultural chemicals and smaller, struggling water systems collide — particularly in lower income communities of color. 

“It’s a moral outrage. It’s unconscionable in a state that has so many resources that we can’t ensure that everybody has access to the human right to water,” said Kyle Jones, policy and legal director with the Community Water Center. “Folks shouldn’t have to suffer health impacts or added cost to have access to something that most of us take for granted and can get daily.” 

The price tag for ensuring safe, affordable and accessible water supplies for all Californians is staggering — an estimated $16 billion over the next five years — as the state grapples with a multibillion-dollar deficit

Without more state or federal funding, most of the total — around $13.9 billion — may fall on local communities and well owners, according to the report. That means some of the people least able to afford it will end up paying more for water. 

The number of failing systems — and the cost of fixing them — is likely to climb as water suppliers must meet new state and federal standards for hexavalent chromium, the contaminant made infamous by the movie “Erin Brockovich,” as well as pervasive forever chemicals

“The subtext of this report is pretty clear,” said Greg Pierce, director of UCLA’s Human Right to Water Solutions Lab, who commended the water board’s transparency and extensive analysis. “The state just needs to put its money where its mouth is.” 

It’s been 12 years since California became the first state in the country to recognize clean, safe, affordable and accessible drinking water as a human right.Today about 98% of Californians are served by water systems that meet state standards. 

Yet despite California’s reputation as an economic powerhouse and climate leader, the state has long struggled to ensure safe drinking water for all — especially those in rural, disadvantaged communities. Californians relying on household wells, for instance, are beyond the state’s regulatory reach

The annual assessment comes from the water board’s Safe and Affordable Funding for Equity and Resilience (SAFER) drinking water program, established by state law in 2019. Nearly a billion dollars has been spent on grants in disadvantaged communities.

“It’s a moral outrage. It’s unconscionable in a state that has so many resources that we can’t ensure that everybody has access to the human right to water.”

Kyle Jones, the Community Water Center

The list of failing water systems typically hovers between 380 and 400, state officials said. And nearly every year, with only a couple of exceptions, more water systems have been added to the “failing” list than removed. 

Still, about 283, or 42% of 715 systems that were on the list, came off between 2017 through 2023. About 700,000 more people have safe water than in 2019, according to the water board. 

But the pace of ensuring safe drinking water is too slow, the state auditor said in a report lambasting the water board two years ago.It “has funding available to help these failing systems improve the quality of their drinking water. Nonetheless, the board has generally demonstrated a lack of urgency in providing this critical assistance,” the auditor said.

Kristyn Abhold, a senior environmental scientist at the water board who led today’s report, said infrastructure takes time. “It’s not just the funding side, but it’s the planning. It’s the engineering reports, the community engagement, it’s getting the right permits in place,” she said. 

The cost estimates have risen about $1.1 billion, or about 26%, since a 2021 assessment for failing and at-risk public water systems, and $3.6 billion for high-risk private, household wells and small water systems that serve only a handful of customers — a 264% increase, said Jackie Carpenter, a water board spokesperson.  

Part of the increase is due to inflation, Abhold said. Some is because the latest analysis favors long-term, higher-cost fixes, such as merging struggling water systems with more secure ones nearby. And some is because the analysis now includes water systems and household wells at risk for shortages, rather than just ones grappling with poor water quality. 

The water board projects that it can cover about $2 billion of the $15.9 billion estimated cost with grants — leaving $13.9 billion to be shouldered by water suppliers and well owners, including those that are least financially able to weather such a blow. 

Smaller systems already charge about $32 more a month than larger ones, according to the report, and about 13% of community water systems face medium to high affordability burdens.

Two years ago, Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a bill to establish a program to help low income Californians pay for water because the bill had “no sustainable, ongoing funding identified,” though another, similar bill is now winding its way through the Legislature. 

State officials said drinking water programs have largely escaped the major funding cuts in the latest budget deal: While more than $152 million from the general fund from drinking water and wastewater was cut, nearly $225 million from cap and trade proceeds was included. “In sum, we do not anticipate a net reduction in funding available for drinking water projects,” said water board spokesperson Dimitri Stanich. 

Safe drinking water advocates say that it is still far too little.

The funding gap identified in the report “is huge, particularly given how little the program will receive over the next two years,” said Jennifer Clary, California director of Clean Water Action. Clary advocated for drinking water funding in a climate bond that is still being negotiated. 

“Drinking water infrastructure isn’t a luxury item. Without these projects, thousands of Californians will continue to lack access to safe and clean drinking water.”

This article was originally published by CalMatters.

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