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    • Most funding for California’s water system comes from local utilities.
      The state’s extensive water system supplies cities and farms; prevents pollution of lakes, rivers, and coastlines; protects against floods; and supports freshwater ecosystems and the forested headwaters that are a major source of water supply. Many local, state, and federal agencies oversee this system and raise revenues from a variety of sources. California spends about $37 billion annually, with the lion’s share (84%) coming from local water bills and taxes. The balance comes from state (13%) and federal (3%) contributions.

Local utilities raise most of the money spent on water in California

figure - Local utilities raise most of the money spent on water in California

SOURCE: Updated from E. Hanak et al., Paying for Water in California (PPIC, 2014).

NOTES: The figure reports average spending for 2016‒18. Local expenditures exclude grants from higher levels of government. The water quality category includes management of wastewater and approximately $500 million for polluted stormwater and other runoff. GO bond debt service is repayment of state general obligation bonds.

    • Water and wastewater rates have been rising as utilities invest in system upgrades.
      California’s urban water and wastewater agencies face some fiscal challenges, including how to balance their books during emergencies, such as major droughts and recessions, when revenues decline. Overall, they are in reasonably good fiscal health. Urban utilities have generally been able to raise funds to replace aging infrastructure and to comply with new water treatment requirements. Yet bills have been rising faster than inflation to keep pace with these infrastructure updates, alongside new investments to manage a changing climate. For low-income households, rising rates can lead to affordability and access issues—a challenge heightened during the COVID-19 recession.
    • State bonds play a key role in funding fiscal orphans.
      California’s water system includes multiple activities that lack adequate long-term funding sources. Examples of these “fiscal orphans” include providing safe drinking water in small, low-income communities; delivering flood protection; managing polluted stormwater; and stewarding freshwater ecosystems and headwater forests. Since 2000, eight state water bonds have set aside approximately $27 billion for water projects. Although bonds play a small role in overall spending—averaging just $1 billion per year—they are instrumental in filling funding gaps. Since 2000, bonds have devoted roughly $4 billion each to ecosystem restoration and flood management. Bonds also support new programs that do not have local funding streams. For example, Propositions 1 and 68 are supporting the implementation of the 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). Bonds are reimbursed by the state’s general fund, and California is currently repaying nearly $1 billion annually for past water bonds. The proposed 2021 budget included an influx of General Fund support towards many fiscal orphans, supplanting the near-term need for new water and climate bonds.

Bonds approved since 2000 have funded a range of efforts

figure - Bonds approved since 2000 have funded a range of efforts

SOURCE: Authors’ calculations, using bond project spending details from the California Natural Resources Agency.

NOTES: This figure shows water bond project spending through August 2020 for the eight water bonds passed from 2000–18 ($27 billion in spending authorized). Flood protection includes both flood and stormwater management, water supply includes groundwater management projects, and water quality includes wastewater management and drinking water quality projects. Ecosystems includes early state matching funds for environmental benefits of storage projects under Proposition 1. Other includes multi-benefit, integrated regional water management, and administrative projects. Projects were grouped by their primary area of focus, and some projects may generate benefits more broadly.

  • Cap-and-trade funds are being used for safe drinking water and forest health.
    As part of California’s efforts to ensure safe drinking water for all, the Safe and Affordable Funding for Equity and Resilience program (SAFER) was established in 2019. SAFER provides $130 million annually for 10 years from cap-and-trade revenues and the general fund to help small water systems in low-income communities operate effectively, covering gaps in operations and maintenance, technical assistance, and other costs. It complements other state and federal programs that support capital spending. The governor’s 2021 proposal includes over $1 billion more for safe drinking water and wastewater. In the wake of devastating wildfires and growing recognition of the need to improve forest health, the legislature also earmarked $1 billion from cap-and-trade dollars for forest management from 2019–23. This funding more than quadrupled Cal Fire’s budget in 2019 and 2020.
  • Constitutional amendments constrain efforts to raise local funds for some projects.
    New local fees and taxes could fill funding gaps for some fiscal orphans, but the details are important. Propositions 218 and 26 impose strict cost-recovery requirements on water rates, making it challenging for public water agencies to implement conservation-oriented rates and affordability programs. Proposition 218 also brought stricter voting approval requirements for certain charges and user fees. This has hampered the ability of agencies to fund essential services like flood and stormwater management. Supermajority approval by two-thirds of voters is necessary for local taxes and bonds that provide broad benefits. The success of Los Angeles County’s Measure W—a parcel tax on impermeable surfaces that will raise $300 million annually for stormwater programs—shows it is possible to garner public support for such programs.


Sources: Hanak et al., Paying for Water in California (PPIC, 2014), State Controller’s Office Local Government Financial Data (local spending), California Natural Resources Agency (bond project data), California Department of Finance (state agency spending).

    • The cost of water is rising.
      Utilities rely on revenue from ratepayers to support water system costs, and water bills vary across the state. Water systems that rely on groundwater tend to have lower rates, because treatment and delivery costs are relatively low. Economies of scale are also important determinants of cost and affordability, with smaller systems facing higher per-customer costs for system investments. To cover rising costs, water bills have been rising faster than inflation in many parts of California. Investments to replace aging infrastructure, meet new treatment standards, diversify supplies, and maintain a well-trained workforce will continue to raise costs. Sewer systems are seeing somewhat similar trends.

Average water bills vary considerably across urban water systems

figure - Average water bills vary considerably across urban water systems

SOURCE: Author calculations using the State Water Board’s Electronic Annual Reporting data (2019).

NOTES: This figure shows the monthly drinking water costs for 385 urban water suppliers, which serve roughly 92% of all Californians. Costs reflect the typical drinking water bill for utility customers consuming 12 HCF (hundred cubic feet) per month (748 gallons = 1 HCF). Estimates of affordability reported in the text for basic water needs are based on charges for 6 HCF per month.

    • There is no single guideline for determining whether water bills are too high.
      Affordability is important for both communities and households: Do communities have the resources to maintain safe water systems, and can low-income households afford their water bills? One measure of community-level affordability is the cost of water as a share of median household income. Using a threshold of 1.5%, the State Water Board recently estimated that 21% of the state’s water systems, serving 18% of all residents, have water rates that are unaffordable for basic needs like cooking, washing, and drinking. Even more individual households may face difficult trade-offs between paying for water and meeting other basic needs. The state identified 34% of all households earning less than 200% of the federal poverty level as potentially in need of rate assistance. More precise local measures of affordability—for instance, including housing costs in calculations—could better inform affordability programs.
    • Public water agencies are restricted in assisting low-income customers with water bills.
      Many large utilities offer “lifeline” rates that can subsidize bills of low-income customers, but enrollment is often low. Private water utilities have been able to expand these programs as rates have risen. In contrast, public agencies have been constrained since the 1996 passage of Proposition 218—a constitutional amendment that requires a tight connection between water rates and cost of service. To launch or expand assistance programs, these agencies need to use non-rate revenue (e.g., property taxes) or seek approval of new taxes by two-thirds of local voters. As an alternative, the State Water Board has recommended a statewide low-income water rate assistance program to benefit about 4.7 million households at a cost of about $600 million annually. Congressional bills have proposed federal water rate assistance, similar to an energy rate assistance program. Racial income disparities mean people of color are more likely to need assistance.
    • Rate design can help keep prices low for basic needs.
      The amount of water required for basic needs—roughly 50 gallons per person per day— is low relative to the average customer’s water use. Most bills contain two parts: a fixed monthly service charge, and a volumetric portion that rises with the amount of water used. Since most water system costs do not vary with the amount of water sold, utilities have some incentives to set a high fixed service charge to maintain financial stability. But this strategy has affordability tradeoffs because it increases the costs of water for meeting basic needs. Water agencies can also support affordability by making concerted efforts to contain water system costs.

Local agencies are spending more to operate and maintain their systems

figure - Local agencies are spending more to operate and maintain their systems

SOURCE: Author estimates using data from the California State Controller’s Office.

NOTES: This figure shows operating and capital expenditures for local public drinking water and wastewater agencies (cities, counties, and special districts) adjusted for inflation (using the 2019 CPI index). Adjusting for population growth (using population numbers from the Department of Finance), real expenditures also increased, but at a slower pace: by $200 million per year for water and $500,000 per year for wastewater.

  • Avoiding shutoffs protects public health, but at a cost to local water systems.
    While it is often the last resort, service disconnection can result from nonpayment of bills. Utilities work with customers on repayment plans and provide support for those at risk, but shutoffs are a way to enforce payment and recoup necessary revenue. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, a statewide moratorium on water shutoffs maintained access for vulnerable residents. But it also reduced revenues and added to a ballooning water debt problem: by early 2021, at least 155,000 households owed more than $1,000 in water bills. The federal stimulus and the state budget propose funding to alleviate arrears. Better data on which customers are unable to pay can help tailor solutions, such as avoiding shutoffs during emergencies, reducing fees on water debt, and providing a minimum amount of water to those who cannot afford to pay.


Sources: Paying for Water in California (PPIC, 2014), Hanak et al., Water for Cities (PPIC, 2018), State Water Board COVID Drinking Water Survey (water bill arrears) and 2021 Drinking Water Needs Assessment (affordability).

    • The pandemic may not have increased California’s uninsured rate.
      While we still do not know the exact impact of the pandemic on health coverage, available evidence suggests that sizable employment losses in 2020 may not have affected uninsured rates much. Nationally, estimates indicate the uninsured rate did not change in the first half of 2020 and analysis of administrative data suggests losses in employer-based insurance were small and may have been offset by enrollment in Medicaid. In California, we have seen steady increases in Medi-Cal (California’s Medicaid program) enrollment since April 2020, with caseloads about 9% larger in January 2021 compared to January 2020.

Expanded Medi-Cal coverage is responsible for much of the decline in the uninsured rate

figure - Expanded Medi-Cal coverage is responsible for much of the decline in the uninsured rate

SOURCES: American Community Survey (ACS), 1-year PUMS, 2010–2019. California Department of Health Care Services, Medi-Cal Certified Eligibles Tables by County, 2010 to Most Recent Reportable Month (March, 2021), downloaded from the CHHS Open Data Portal. California Department of Finance (DOF).

NOTES: Uninsured rates are based on self-reported survey data from the ACS and are subject to greater error than the administrative data used for the Medi-Cal coverage rate, which shows annual January Medi-Cal enrollment counts, excluding undocumented immigrants in limited scope Medi-Cal, divided by annual state population estimates.

    • ACA coverage expansions likely helped keep many Californians insured.
      After coverage expansions under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) took effect in 2014, California’s uninsured rate declined substantially from 17% to about 7%, where it has held steady since 2016. California’s decision to expand Medi-Cal to cover most low-income adults without children or a qualifying disability was responsible for much of these gains. As of January 2021, Medi-Cal provided comprehensive health coverage to about 12.6 million residents, nearly one-third of the state’s population. Most Californians with low and moderate income levels who do not qualify for Medi-Cal can purchase health insurance through Covered California, the state’s insurance marketplace, and receive federal and state subsidies to cover the costs. Between 1.2 and 1.6 million Californians annually have purchased health insurance through Covered California since its creation in 2014.
    • ACA reform has been linked to improved outcomes.
      A substantial body of research generally agrees that ACA Medicaid expansions improved access to and use of health care, reduced disparities across racial/ethnic, income, and education groups, and increased financial security for individuals and hospitals. Recent studies have shown that Medicaid expansion is associated with decreased mortality overall and for certain conditions; it has also been linked to reductions in poverty rates, food insecurity, and home evictions.
    • California passed state-level reforms to protect ACA coverage gains . . .
      In response to the Trump administration’s repeal of the individual mandate (the requirement that people have health insurance or pay a tax penalty) and funding cuts for outreach and enrollment, California passed state-level health reforms to protect its coverage gains. These included offering state subsidies to purchase insurance though Covered California and the creation of a state individual mandate. In 2020, new state subsidies that averaged $500/month helped about 32,000 higher-income Californians (making up to $75,000 for an individual) who were ineligible for federal subsidies purchase a plan through Covered California.
    • . . . but significant gaps in health coverage remain.
      In 2019, the most recent data available, about 3 million Californians were uninsured. Latinos have uninsured rates more than double those of other racial/ethnic groups and comprised about 2 million of the Californians without health insurance in 2019. Undocumented immigrants are a large group of the uninsured population as they are excluded from most federally funded coverage. High uninsured rates among noncitizens underscore this inequity. Low- and moderate-income Californians, along with working-age adults, continue to have higher uninsured rates, despite being the target of ACA coverage expansions.

Latinos, low- and moderate-income residents, and noncitizens have higher uninsured rates

figure - Latinos, low- and moderate-income residents, and noncitizens have higher uninsured rates

SOURCE: American Community Survey, 1-year PUMS, 2019.

NOTES: “FPL” refers to the federal poverty level. Estimates exclude people in group quarters. ACS indicates whether person was uninsured at the time of the survey, not the entire year.

  • California may have opportunities to further expand coverage in the coming years.
    The Biden administration has signaled support for furthering health reform at the national level. The recently passed American Rescue Plan Act increases federal premium subsidies for people at every income level. Covered California estimates about 2.5 million Californians could benefit from enhanced subsidies for the next two years. These and other federal reforms could invigorate California’s efforts to provide coverage to all residents through a state-based, unified financing system. Several challenges would remain, but exploring ways to expand coverage—and ensure all Californians can access needed medical care—will be crucial as the state emerges from the pandemic, especially if equity is to be a focus of the recovery.


Sources: Cohen and Terlizzi, “Health Insurance Coverage” (National Center for Health Statistics, 2021); McDermott et al., “How Has the Pandemic Affected Coverage in the US?” (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2020); Ruggles et al., IPUMS USA: Version 11.0 [dataset] (University of Minnesota, 2021); Guth, Garfield, and Rudowitz, “The Effects of Medicaid Expansion under the ACA” (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2020); “New California Policies Make Huge Difference,” news release (Covered California, 2020); “Covered California Opens the Doors,” news release (Covered California, 2021).

    • Work is a source of health risk for many immigrants . . .
      Immigrants generally tend to be healthier than US-born individuals, reflecting the fact that many came to the US to work; this is called the “healthy immigrant effect” or the “Latino paradox,” in the case of Latinos. However, immigrants are disproportionately represented in occupations such as construction and agricultural work that have high rates of workplace injury and exposure to unhealthy heat, pesticides, or other chemicals. In some sectors, immigrants are 15% to 25% more likely to be fatally injured at work compared to US-born workers.
    • . . . and low-income immigrants are especially vulnerable to COVID-19.
      During the COVID-19 pandemic, essential jobs—which cannot be performed remotely—have been sources of coronavirus risk for many immigrant workers and their families. In California, cooks and agricultural workers have had among the highest excess mortality rates during the pandemic. In addition, low-income immigrants often live in households that are crowded and/or multi-generational. These and other factors have led to disproportionate deaths among immigrants in California; working-aged Latino immigrants are 8 to 11 times more likely to have died of coronavirus compared to US-born non-Latinos. Universal access to virus testing, treatment, and vaccination will be essential to overcoming the pandemic in California.

Immigrant households are more likely to have an essential worker, be crowded, or both

figure - Immigrant households are more likely to have an essential worker, be crowded, or both

SOURCE: American Community Survey 2019 public-use microdata, accessed through IPUMS.

NOTES: Differences across counties are due to variation in both eligibility and take-up of the EITC. Eligibility hinges on adjusted gross income, and filers must have social security numbers and limited investment income. Most recipients have one or more dependent children.

    • Immigrants and their families are less likely to have health insurance.
      Only about 8% of Californians have no form of health insurance, but a disproportionate share are immigrants; they make up 27% of the state but 48% of the uninsured. Fewer than 4% of children are uninsured; some of these children may be in families with limited coverage options due to barriers like immigration status. Almost two-thirds of uninsured individuals (65% of adults and 63% of children) live with at least one family member who is an immigrant. Low-income immigrants without green cards—many of whom are undocumented—are less likely to have public health insurance or access to employer insurance compared to immigrants with US citizenship or green cards.

Low-income immigrants without green cards have limited access to employer insurance

figure - Low-income immigrants without green cards have limited access to employer insurance

SOURCE: California Health Interview Survey 2019 adult file.

NOTES: Includes all California households. Immigrant households have at least one foreign-born member. A household is crowded if it has more than one person per room. A household has an essential worker if at least one member works in an occupation described as essential in California’s March 2020 stay-at-home order. Percentages may not sum to 100 due to rounding.

  • Undocumented immigrants have fewer coverage options.
    California recently expanded Medi-Cal (the state’s Medicaid program) to cover all low-income children and young adults, regardless of immigration status, but most undocumented immigrants are older and therefore ineligible. A limited version of Medi-Cal covers emergencies and specific types of care, but it is not comprehensive coverage. Undocumented immigrants are unable to buy plans through Covered California, the state’s marketplace, and they are less likely to have insurance through employers. All Californians can purchase a plan directly from an insurer, but this can be unaffordable. In March 2021, 66% of California adults supported health care coverage for undocumented immigrants, up from 54% in 2015.
  • Lack of data leaves many unanswered questions about immigrant health.
    California has made large investments to expand insurance coverage among immigrants, but little is known about whether access to care has improved. About 60% of noncitizen immigrants in California had a routine checkup in the past year, compared to over 70% of US-born and naturalized citizens. Moreover, low-income uninsured immigrants’ tendency to pay cash or receive charity care means that their health care interactions will not appear in most data sources—not even the coming California Healthcare Payments Database. The dearth of information poses a challenge for policymakers who want to reduce barriers to accessing care.
  • Federal immigration reform could bring many into the health care mainstream.
    The Biden administration has signaled an interest in giving undocumented immigrants opportunities to apply for temporary legal status and eventually US citizenship. These changes could make undocumented immigrants eligible for Medi-Cal or Covered California premium subsidies if they meet income limits. Coverage and legal immigration status could together open the door for immigrants and their family members to receive regular, comprehensive health care.


Sources: Zavodny, “Do Immigrants Work in Worse Jobs than US Natives?” Industrial Relations (2015); Moyce and Shenker, “Occupational Exposures and Health Outcomes Among Immigrants in the USA,” Current Environmental Health Reports (2017); Chen et al., “Excess Mortality Associated with the COVID-19 Pandemic among Californians 18-65 years of age, by Occupational Sector and Occupation” (preprint manuscript, 2020); Cimini and Botts, “Close Quarters” (Cal Matters, 2020); Garcia et al. “COVID-19 Mortality in California based on Death Certificates,” Annals of Epidemiology (2021); California Health Interview Survey 2019 adult file; American Community Survey 2019, accessed through IPUMS.

Related Content

Just the Facts: Immigrants in California

Just the Facts: Immigrants and Education in California

Just the Facts: Immigrants and Political Engagement

    • California is prone to droughts.
      California has the nation’s most variable climate, and droughts are a recurring feature. Very wet and very dry years are both common, while “normal” years—widely used to describe average precipitation—are rare. Yet one dry year does not constitute a drought. Water stored in the state’s reservoirs and groundwater basins protect against individual dry years. Droughts occur when two or more successive years are very dry, and reservoirs and groundwater reserves are depleted. Significant recent droughts occurred in 1976‒77, 1987‒92, 2007‒09, and 2012‒16.
    • Climate change is making droughts more intense.
      The past two decades have been exceptionally warm and dry, and included the hottest drought (2012‒16) in the state’s recorded history. Warming is making droughts more intense. A “thirstier” atmosphere—a direct consequence of warming—increases evaporation, which reduces water availability for ecosystems and human uses. Warming is also decreasing the proportion of precipitation that falls as snow. Snowpack is an important part of the state’s water storage system, accounting for about 30% of water supply. “Snow droughts” make it harder to manage reservoirs for water supply and hydropower generation.

Droughts are a recurring feature of California’s climate. Warming is making them worse.

figure - Droughts are a Recurring Feature of California’s Climate. Warming Is Making Them Worse.

SOURCE: Western Regional Climate Center California Climate Tracker, DWR California’s Most Significant Droughts.

NOTES: Averages are calculated for 1950‒2000. Average statewide precipitation is 24.3 inches, and average temperature is 57.2 (F).

    • Most cities are well-prepared for droughts . . .
      The state’s large urban areas have made major investments in improving drought resilience by diversifying their supply sources—including water reuse, recycling, and stormwater capture—and expanding conservation efforts. Because of this, urban areas often experience drought impacts later than other sectors. Although California has added almost 10 million people since 1990, the amount of water used in cities has remained roughly the same. Reductions in water use were significant during the 2012‒16 drought, and while per-capita water use bounced back slightly, it has remained lower than pre-drought levels.
    • . . . but many small communities are vulnerable.
      Across California, small rural communities—many of them communities of color—are ill-prepared to manage drought, often due to financial constraints. Communities that rely on shallow wells are especially vulnerable to dry conditions and regional groundwater over-pumping. During the 2012‒16 drought, at least 2,600 well-dependent households experienced water shortages, and roughly 150 small water systems needed emergency assistance. Steps are underway to improve drought planning for small communities, to better anticipate problems.
    • Agriculture faces significant challenges from increasing drought intensity.
      Many farmers rely on groundwater to get them through droughts, but historical over-pumping has depleted these supplies. State law now requires sustainable management of groundwater over time. While increasing surface supplies and groundwater recharge will help, achieving sustainability will require reductions in demand, principally through land fallowing. Achieving sustainability may require permanent fallowing of more than 500,000 acres of farmland. Growing drought intensity increases demand for groundwater and reduces recharge opportunities, making it more difficult to bring groundwater basins into balance.

Water storage is key to managing droughts, but unsustainable use has depleted groundwater.

figure - Water Storage Is Key to Managing Droughts, but Unsustainable Use Has Depleted Groundwater.

SOURCE: Author estimates using DWR California Data Exchange, DWR C2VSimFG, DWR California’s Most Significant Droughts.

NOTES: For reservoir storage, the figure shows the difference between water stored at the end of the water year in 11 major Central Valley reservoirs, and the average values over the 1985‒2020 period. For groundwater storage, it shows year-over-year changes in the Central Valley, using C2VSim for 1985‒2015 and a regression analysis for 2016‒20.

  • Droughts make it harder to manage the environment.
    The state’s rivers, wetlands, and forests—which serve as natural water-management infrastructure—are in decline. Drought stress is making these ecosystems more vulnerable. Today, more than 240 freshwater species found in California are either endangered or vulnerable to extinction. Protection of these species often leads to conflicts over water management. Historical management practices in headwater forests, coupled with increasing drought intensity, have left many forests unhealthy and marred by disease and die-offs. Extreme wildfires, such as the record fires in 2020, are likely to increase in the future. The state needs to restore the health of its natural infrastructure while also improving its resilience to warmer and drier droughts.

Sources: Managing Drought in a Changing Climate (PPIC 2018), Water and the Future of the San Joaquin Valley (PPIC 2019), A Path Forward for California’s Freshwater Ecosystems (PPIC 2019), Water Use in California (PPIC 2019).

    • Not every Californian has access to safe and reliable drinking water.
      Although most residents have safe drinking water, more than 250 water systems serving 900,000 people were out of compliance with drinking water standards in 2020. This is a chronic issue for some systems; more than 170 have been out of compliance for three or more years. More than half of these noncompliant systems are in the San Joaquin Valley—California’s largest farming region and home to a third of the state’s low-income communities. Some tribal water systems face similar challenges. A recent needs assessment by the state analyzed the water quality challenges facing roughly 1,500 very small, county-regulated water systems and more than 350,000 domestic wells across California.
    • Groundwater contamination is a major issue, with new contaminants emerging.
      Most systems with unsafe water rely on groundwater as a primary source. Naturally occurring contaminants such as arsenic and uranium, as well as those introduced by human activity such as nitrate—mainly from nitrogen fertilizers and manure—are problems in many areas. Surface water systems sometimes encounter treatment issues that can pose health risks, but these usually can be resolved more easily than groundwater contamination. State and federal agencies continue to identify and regulate emerging contaminants. 1,2,3-TCP—a chemical that can linger in groundwater—has been regulated since 2018 and is still prevalent. Concerns are growing about the presence of widely used industrial chemicals known as PFAS in many groundwater basins, and state and federal agencies have begun coordinating to identify these hazards and set standards.

Water systems that do not meet drinking water standards are found across the state

Figure 1: Water systems that do not meet drinking water standards are found across the state

SOURCE: Developed by the authors using data from the State Water Board’s Human Right to Water (HR2W) portal.

NOTES: The map shows the 254 community water systems (serving about 900,000 people, or 2% of the population) that HR2W reported as out of compliance in August 2020. Of the more than 400 schools with their own water systems, more than 50 were also out of compliance, as were some systems on tribal lands. Nearly 40% of community water systems had multiple violations; 21% were in violation for arsenic, and 15% for 1,2,3-TCP contamination.

    • Droughts can cause drinking water shortages for some residents.
      During the 2012‒16 drought at least 2,600 well-dependent households in California faced drinking water shortages, while more than 150 water systems applied for emergency state funding to address supply and quality problems. The state worked with counties and community groups to provide emergency supplies. A county drought advisory task force made up of state, local, and tribal partners has sought to use this experience to improve planning for future droughts. Groundwater sustainability agencies must also incorporate measures in their plans to mitigate the risk of wells running dry from local pumping.
    • Small, rural, low-income communities of color are more likely to face issues.
      Almost all systems that fail to meet safety standards or lack reliable supplies are small—serving fewer than 3,300 people—and problems are most persistent in systems serving fewer than 500 people. Most of these systems are in rural, low-income communities of color. Small systems face higher costs per household to address water quality problems, because water treatment has significant economies of scale. Consumption of contaminated water can result in chronic illnesses and affect maternal health and educational outcomes. Low-income communities often experience higher rates of underlying health conditions, such as diabetes, asthma, and heart disease, which can intensify the effects of contaminant exposure. Water is often only one of many basic-service challenges that small, rural, low-income communities face.

Small systems are most likely to have chronic compliance issues

Figure 2: Small systems are most likely to have chronic compliance issues

SOURCE: Developed by the authors using the State Water Board’s Human Right to Water (HR2W) portal (systems out of compliance in August 2020), and the US Environmental Protection Agency’s ECHO portal (systems chronically out of compliance, defined here as three or more years).

  • Safe drinking water is a human right.
    California’s Human Right to Water Act, enacted in 2012, recognizes that “every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water.” Providing safe drinking water to communities affected by water contamination or shortages requires one of two things: water treatment or alternative sources of supply. Funding and partnerships are both essential. To boost state efforts to tackle these problems, the Safe and Affordable Funding for Equity and Resilience (SAFER) program was created in 2019, with $130 million annually over 10 years. Fully addressing all at-risk systems will require a major increase in funding over many years. The State Water Board has been identifying systems and allocating funding for solutions such as consolidating small water systems with larger systems, installing small treatment systems, and drilling new wells in uncontaminated locations. Progress is being made, but more work is needed to ensure all Californians have access to safe drinking water.

Hanak et al., California’s Water: Providing Safe Drinking Water (PPIC 2018), Expanding Access to Safe and Affordable Drinking Water in California (Legislative Analyst’s Office 2020), State Water Board Human Right to Water portal (compliance and contaminant information), US Environmental Protection Agency’s ECHO portal (time out of compliance), State Water Board Needs Assessment.

    • Educational attainment among recent immigrants has risen markedly.
      In 2019, 52% of working-age immigrants (age 25–64) who had lived in the US for five years or less had bachelor’s or graduate degrees, up 31 percentage points since 1990. In contrast, the share of college graduates among US-born Californians was 38% in 2019, up 11 points since 1990. Among recent immigrants, 17% had not graduated from high school in 2019, compared with nearly half (47%) in 1990.

Recent immigrants have higher levels of educational attainment than US-born Californians

figure - Recent Immigrants Have Higher Levels of Educational Attainment than US-born Californians

SOURCE: 2019 one-year American Community Survey data accessed through IPUMS.

NOTES: Sample restricted to California residents age 25–64. Recent immigrants are those who arrived within the last five years.

    • Most recent immigrants are from Asia—and most Asian immigrants are college educated.
      In 2019, 56% of recent working-age immigrants were from Asia, more than twice the share from Latin America (27%). Immigrants from India are the fastest-growing and most educated group in California: the working-age immigrant population from India has increased six-fold since 1990, and 81% of these immigrants have college degrees.
    • Immigrants make up a growing share of California’s highly educated workforce . . .
      Immigrants account for about 31% of California workers age 25–64 with at least a bachelor’s degree, up from 20% in 1990. Immigrants with a college degree work in every major industry in the state and are especially well-represented in the technology and health sectors. A majority (63%) of college graduates in electronics and product manufacturing are immigrants, as are about half of workers in software publishing (42%) and computer systems design (47%). Immigrants also make up 59% of college graduates in skilled nursing facilities.

Immigrants make up a growing share of California workers with college degrees

figure - Immigrants Make Up a Growing Share of California Workers with College Degrees

SOURCE: 2019 one-year American Community Survey data and decennial censuses accessed through IPUMS.

NOTES: Sample restricted to employed California residents age 25–64 with at least a bachelor’s degree.

  • . . . but immigrants also comprise an outsized share of workers with little formal education.
    In 2019, 29% of working-age immigrants in California had not graduated from high school, compared to 7% of US-born Californians. An additional 20% of immigrants in California finished high school but did not attend college, similar to US-born residents (21%). Immigrants make up a large share of workers in industries that typically require little formal education, including agricultural production and the hospitality industry, accounting for 75% of California workers with less than a high school degree.
  • Strong educational progress occurs across generations.
    In California and the nation as a whole, the adult children of immigrants (i.e., second-generation adults) tend to be much more highly educated than their parents. Almost all (93%) second-generation adults age 30–39 are high school graduates, compared to only about two-thirds (65%) of immigrant parents age 60–69. While second-generation adults are also more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than their parents’ generation (36% vs. 28%), they are less likely to do so than other US-born adults (48%). This suggests the need for more targeted efforts to increase college access and completion among students who would be the first in their families to earn a bachelor’s degree.
  • Many California college students are foreign born.
    Foreign-born students, including permanent residents and those on student visas, make up a larger share of postsecondary enrollment in California than any other state. These students comprise 18% of undergraduate and 27% of graduate and professional school students. Intended degree fields among foreign-born students align with California’s need for highly educated workers, especially in fast-growing STEM jobs. Among California college students, 46% of engineering and 42% of computer and information sciences majors are foreign born.
  • Most Californians favor protections for undocumented students.
    An overwhelming majority of Californians (86%) favor protections—Including protection from deportation and a work permit—for immigrants brought to the US as children. The California Dream Act (passed in 2021) allows undocumented students who attended high school in California to pay in-state tuition and be eligible for the state’s student financial aid programs.


Sources: American Community Survey and decennial census data from the US Census Bureau and IPUMS; Ruggles et al., Integrated Public Use Microdata Series: Version 6.0 (University of Minnesota, 2015); State-Level Unauthorized Population and Eligible-to-Naturalize Estimates (Center for Migration Studies, 2016); Baldassare et al., PPIC Statewide Survey: Californians and Their Government (PPIC, January 2021).

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    • California has more immigrants than any other state.
      California is home to almost 11 million immigrants—about a quarter of the foreign-born population nationwide. In 2019, the most current year of data, 27% of California’s population was foreign born, more than double the percentage in the rest of the country. Foreign-born residents represented at least one-third of the population in five California counties: Santa Clara (39%), San Mateo (35%), Los Angeles (34%), San Francisco (34%), and Alameda (33%). Half of California children have at least one immigrant parent.
    • Most immigrants in California are documented residents.
      More than half (53%) of California’s immigrants are naturalized US citizens, and another 25% have some other legal status (including green cards and visas). According to the Center for Migration Studies, about 22% of immigrants in California are undocumented. From 2010 to 2019, the number of undocumented immigrants in the state declined from 2.9 million to 2.3 million.
    • After decades of rapid growth, the number of immigrants has leveled off.
      In the 1990s, California’s immigrant population grew by 2.4 million people, a 37% increase. But in the first decade of the 2000s, growth slowed to 15% (1.3 million), and in the past 10 years, the increase was only 6% (about 600,000). The decline in international immigration has contributed to the slowdown of California’s overall population growth.

The share of immigrants in California has stabilized in recent decades at relatively high levels

figure - The Share of Immigrants in California Has Stabilized in Recent Decades at Relatively High Levels

SOURCE: US Census Bureau, decennial censuses, and the American Community Survey.

    • The majority of recent arrivals are from Asia.
      The vast majority of California’s immigrants were born in Latin America (50%) or Asia (39%). California has sizable populations of immigrants from dozens of countries; the leading countries of origin are Mexico (3.9 million), the Philippines (859,000), China (796,000), Vietnam (539,000), and India (513,000). However, among immigrants who arrived between 2010 and 2019, more than half (53%) were born in Asia, while 31% were born in Latin America.

Even with recent slowdowns, Asia is the leading source of recent immigrants to California

figure - Even with Recent Slowdowns, Asia Is the Leading Source of Recent Immigrants to California

SOURCE: American Community Survey.

NOTES: New arrivals are based on the place of residence one year prior to the survey (excluding US-born citizens).

  • Most of California’s immigrants are bilingual.
    More than two-thirds (70%) of immigrants in California report speaking English proficiently, while 10% speak no English. Even among recent immigrants, those in the US for five years or less, 66% report proficiency in English, while 12% speak no English. At home, most immigrants speak a language other than English, with Spanish and Chinese (including Mandarin and Cantonese) being the most common.
  • California’s immigrants have varying levels of education.
    Among working-age Californians (age 25–64), foreign-born residents accounted for 70% of those without a high school diploma and 32% of those with at least a bachelor’s degree. But recent immigrants and immigrants from Asia tend to have high levels of educational attainment. Half of foreign-born residents who have come to the state since 2010—and 61% of those who have come from Asia—have at least a bachelor’s degree. Overall, 29% of California’s immigrants have not completed high school, compared with 7% of US-born California residents. Thirty-two percent of California’s foreign-born residents have a bachelor’s degree, compared to 38% of US-born residents.
  • Californians have positive views of immigrants.
    Nearly four in five Californians (78%) believe immigrants are a benefit to the state because of their hard work and job skills, compared to only 18% who believe they are a burden. An even larger share (87%) believe there should be a way for undocumented immigrants to stay in the country legally, and a majority (61%) favor state and local governments making their own policies and taking actions, separate from the federal government, to protect the legal rights of undocumented immigrants in California.


Sources: American Community Survey and decennial census data from the US Census Bureau and IPUMS; Ruggles et al., Integrated Public Use Microdata Series: Version 6.0 (University of Minnesota, 2021); Robert Warren, In 2019, the US Undocumented Population Continued a Decade-Long Decline and the Foreign-Born Population Neared Zero Growth (Center for Migration Studies, 2021); Baldassare et al., PPIC Statewide Survey: Californians and Their Government (PPIC, March 2019 and January 2021).

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    • One in eight US residents lives in California.
      With almost 40 million people (according to 2020 estimates), California is the nation’s most populous state—its population is much larger than that of second-place Texas (29 million) and third-place Florida (22 million). California’s population is projected to reach 45 million people by 2050.
    • California’s population growth has slowed dramatically in recent decades.
      Between 1900 and 2000, California’s population skyrocketed from fewer than 2 million people to 34 million, a growth rate that was much higher than that of the rest of the United States. Over the past 20 years, California has experienced its slowest rates of growth ever recorded, and growth has been especially stagnant this decade. According to estimates by the California Department of Finance, California’s population grew by 6.5% (or 2.4 million) from 2010 to 2020, slower than the rate of growth in the rest of the United States (6.7%). In the past year, growth has essentially ground to a halt (0.05% gain).

California’s population skyrocketed in the 20th century but growth has slowed in recent decades

Figure 1: California’s population skyrocketed in the 20th century but growth has slowed in recent decades

SOURCE: California Department of Finance estimates.

    • Domestic migration out of California has accelerated.
      From 2010 to 2020, 1.3 million more people left California for other states than came to California from other states. The flow out of the state was especially stark in the last two years, with a net loss of almost 500,000 people. Meanwhile, international migration has slowed but remains a strong source of population growth, with a net inflow of 1.5 million in the past decade. Natural increase—the difference between births and deaths—added 2.3 million residents. But birth rates are at record lows and the number of deaths is increasing as the population ages. The COVID-19 pandemic also led to a notable rise in deaths in the past year.
    • California’s population is diverse.
      No race or ethnic group constitutes a majority of California’s population: 39% of state residents are Latino, 36% are white, 15% are Asian or Pacific Islander, 6% are African American, fewer than 1% are Native American or Alaska Natives, and 3% are multiracial or other, according to the 2019 American Community Survey. Latinos surpassed whites as the state’s single largest ethnic group in 2014.

California’s population is increasingly diverse

Figure 2: California’s population is increasingly diverse

SOURCE: IPUMS 1970–2000, 1% versions of each decennial census, including the 1970 Form 1 metro sample. American Community Survey 2019.

  • More than 10 million Californians are immigrants.
    According to 2019 estimates, 27% (or 10.6 million) of Californians are foreign born—this share is larger than that of any other state (New Jersey is second with 23%) and more than double the share in the rest of the nation (12%). The leading countries of origin for California immigrants are Mexico (3.9 million), China and Taiwan (974,000), the Philippines (859,000), Vietnam (539,000), India (513,000), El Salvador (454,000), Korea (317,000), Guatemala (309,000), and Iran (214,000). In recent years, immigration from Asia has outpaced immigration from Latin America by a two-to-one margin.
  • California is aging, but it is young compared to the rest of the country.
    California’s population is aging along with the baby boomers; by 2030, about one in five Californians will be 65 or older. But the state’s population is slightly younger than that of the rest of the nation: according to 2019 Census Bureau estimates, the median age in California is 37.0, compared to 38.5 for the entire country. California has the seventh-youngest population in the US (Utah has the youngest).
  • Californians may have been undercounted in the 2020 Census.
    The Census Bureau’s decennial population count will have far-reaching consequences for California’s political representation and federal funding. Three in four Californians belong to one or more hard-to-count groups: children, young men, Latino and African American residents, and renters. Noncitizens may also have been particularly reluctant to participate, given the Trump administration’s actions to curtail immigration and its attempt to add a citizenship question to the census form. The pandemic further upended outreach efforts and affected in-person follow-ups by census workers. Parts of the final count will become available starting in April 2021, but it will take longer to fully discern how disruptions may have affected the count’s accuracy.


Sources: California Department of Finance estimates and projections; US Census Bureau estimates; decennial censuses; American Community Survey.

This fact sheet focuses on the latest available data, from 2019 and 2020.

    • Broadband subscriptions were at all-time highs before the pandemic began.
      A record-high percentage of Californians (84%) had high-speed internet at home in 2019—up from 74% in 2017. Californians use the internet for a range of activities, including financial services (70%), telecommuting (39%), job searches (21%), and online classes or job training (21%). Telehealth has also been on the rise. In 2019, more than half of households researched health issues online; 42% accessed health or insurance records; and 39% communicated with doctors. As the pandemic shifted many activities online, usage almost certainly increased.
    • Significant gaps in broadband access persist.
      Though most demographic groups have seen significant increases in broadband subscriptions at home in recent years, racial/ethnic gaps persist. Seventy-nine percent of Latino households and 81% of African-American households had broadband subscriptions in 2019, compared to the statewide average of 84%. Broadband subscription rates are lower among adults 65 and older (82%), as well as among rural (73%), low-income (76%), and less-educated (80%) households.

Gaps in access to broadband and devices persist

figure - Gaps in access to broadband and devices persist

SOURCE: American Community Survey, 2019.

NOTES: Low-income households earn less than $50,000 annually; high-income households have incomes above $100,000.

    • Most households have multiple internet users—and greater bandwidth needs.
      Most Californians share broadband with others in their households: as of 2019, 76% of households had multiple users. The average-size household includes 2.7 people, while the average size of households with school-age children is 4. Households with multiple users require additional bandwidth for reliable access to online instruction and videoconferencing.
    • Household access to computing devices also varies across demographic groups.
      In 2019, more than one in ten Californians did not have a desktop, laptop, or other computing device at home. Access was especially limited among low-income (22%), rural (19%), less-educated (19%), African American (20%), and Latino (20%) households. Notably, nearly 200,000 households with school-age children (7%) did not have home access to a device.
    • More than one in four K–12 students lack reliable internet access at home.
      Nearly all schools and colleges switched to distance learning in spring 2020, creating unprecedented demand for internet at home, particularly in households with multiple users. Despite efforts to increase availability, 26% of K–12 students and nearly 40% of low-income students still did not have reliable internet access in fall 2020. According to the April 2020 PPIC Statewide Survey, half of Californian parents were concerned about providing productive home learning environments.
    • Rural households face particular broadband challenges.
      The 2019 American Community Survey showed rural areas had the lowest broadband subscription rates, with some exceptions: rates were high in some rural (and wealthy) parts of Sonoma and Marin Counties, while rates in several parts of central Los Angeles County—including Huntington Park, Watts, and Westmont—were among the lowest. Only 68% of adults 65 and older in rural counties had home broadband. Broadband in these areas is limited largely by financial, technological, and topological barriers. Limited connectivity may reduce access to telehealth, which is important because rural areas face shortages of physicians and mental health providers.

Rural areas tend to have the lowest broadband rates

figure - Rural areas tend to have the lowest broadband rates

SOURCE: American Community Survey, 2019; PULSE Household Survey.

NOTES: Areas shown are Public Use Microdata Areas (PUMAs), geographic regions that the US Census Bureau has defined for disseminating statistical information about the population. Each PUMA is built on its constituent census tracts and surrounding county or counties, and contains at least 100,000 people. Therefore, rural or lightly populated PUMAs have larger area, while urban, densely populated PUMAs are small.

  • Federal and state governments are taking steps to bridge the digital divide.
    The most recent federal stimulus package set aside $7 billion for broadband connectivity and infrastructure. The Federal Communications Commission recently awarded $9.2 billion to internet service providers for the construction of rural broadband networks over the next 10 years; California received $695 million. President Biden’s recovery plan emphasizes universal broadband and infrastructure modernization. Governor Newsom issued an executive order in August 2020 that requires state agencies to work together to bridge the digital divide; this should enable the state to take full advantage of federal support.


Sources: American Community Survey, 2019; PPIC Statewide Survey, April 2020.

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