The ongoing public health crisis in Flint, Michigan is a reminder that exposure to dangerous contaminants in drinking water is still a challenge in the US, more than 40 years after the enactment of the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act. Flint began drawing water from a new source, the Flint River, in early 2014. It corroded pipes and carried harmful lead to residents’ taps. Although California does not face this specific problem, we are still failing to provide safe drinking water to some of the state’s most vulnerable residents.
In general, California’s large urban and suburban drinking water systems—which serve roughly 95% of the population—are in good shape. These systems occasionally exceed regulatory standards for pollutants, but they have the resources and oversight needed to address the problem quickly. In contrast, for roughly 400 small rural communities and schools, the water coming from the tap contains unsafe levels of nitrate, arsenic, and other contaminants. This issue is not new; these communities—whose residents are among the poorest in the state—have been relying on contaminated water for years.
The good news is that after years of neglect, this issue is now front and center in California’s water policy agenda. In 2012 legislation was enacted that recognizes the human right to water, formalizing the state’s commitment to guaranteeing affordable, accessible, and safe water to all of its residents. Progress has been made in documenting the extent of the state’s water-quality problem, dedicating funds to help address it, and changing governance structures to improve oversight. Actions taken include merging the state’s water quality programs under the State Water Board, creating a special office to focus on the problems of disadvantaged communities, and enacting legislation that authorizes the board to require consolidation of water systems when it is the best way to sustainably and affordably provide access to safe drinking water.
California’s rural communities have small customer bases, making it more costly for them to provide safe drinking water. Consolidation—the physical or administrative merging of drinking water systems—can be a cost-effective solution to providing a higher level of service and safer supplies. But it also requires willingness of both small and large communities to merge, and parties both large and small often resist this kind of change.
Although the types of contaminants and the scale of the problems differ, California can draw some lessons from Flint’s experience. In both places, contaminated water is being delivered to poor communities for whom affordability is a major concern. In Flint, water managers were trying to save money by switching to a cheaper source, but they didn’t sufficiently analyze the water quality implications of this switch. Flint managers also refused the offer to hook back up to the safer Detroit water —because of cost. What they neglected to consider was the long-term cost of unsafe water to the community.
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