Although most Californians have safe drinking water supplies, pockets of unsafe or inadequate water remain in parts of the state. Persistent water quality challenges mostly affect smaller, economically disadvantaged rural communities. About 90% of the affected water systems distribute water to fewer than 3,300 people each; most are very small, serving fewer than 500 people. Some small communities also face water shortages because their wells went dry during the latest drought. Solutions are financially out of reach for many poor communities, which lack resources and economies of scale to pay for expensive new treatment and supply facilities.
However, the state is actively encouraging one solution: the consolidation of smaller systems into larger ones. Consolidation can occur physically, by extending service connections to these communities, or administratively, by sharing managerial resources. Both approaches can improve the reliability and quality of water in a cost-effective, long-term manner. A 2015 law gives the State Water Board authority to mandate mergers if necessary. There have been 11 mandatory consolidations since then and more are pending. Voluntary consolidations are also on the rise: since the beginning of 2017, there have been 72 mergers.
Although consolidations can reduce costs over the long run, they entail some up-front expenses. Financial assistance is available in the form of state bonds, revolving funds, and some federal programs. Proposed legislation would create a new source of funding (from a voluntary donation on water bills and fees on agricultural chemicals) that would also provide resources. Several state bonds approved over the past decade dedicate funds for this purpose, and Proposition 3 on this November’s ballot would allocate an additional $500 million for infrastructure improvements that ensure access to safe drinking water.
To receive state funding, a water system that plans to extend safe water to a disadvantaged community typically applies for grants that support planning and construction costs as well as technical assistance. The Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF) has supported a number of successful consolidation projects, such as one in Sutter County, where four water systems—including an elementary school—had ongoing arsenic and nitrate violations. DWSRF grants, in addition to funds from Yuba City, were used to finance the connection to Yuba City’s public water system, giving 995 people access to clean and reliable drinking water.
Getting grants can be challenging. The application for planning and construction is a complex, multi-year process, and many small, disadvantaged communities lack the capacity to navigate the application process. The State Water Board, along with some local organizations and programs, are helping affected communities with this process. The State Water Board also offers financial incentives to larger water systems that voluntarily consolidate with these communities, but additional support may be needed to encourage more widespread participation in consolidation programs.
While there are sources to finance capital improvements, other important needs are currently overlooked, including support for operation and maintenance costs, protections against unaffordable water rates, and legal services for consolidation.
Drinking water vulnerabilities in disadvantaged rural communities could worsen with climate change, and more can be done to encourage and streamline the consolidation process. There is growing awareness and action around providing safe and reliable drinking water to all Californians. With dependable funding and a clear state-level action plan, this goal could be achieved in the near term.