By Dale Hunter
If you are like most Californians, you use the water from your faucet without much thought about where it comes from or who makes sure it’s safe to drink -- and that it’s available 24/7.
There are thousands of separate water systems across the state whose employees are committed to the complex task of bringing safe drinking water to homes and businesses, such as restaurants. In some areas, the responsibility falls to cities and counties, but many of the water systems are special districts (a non-profit local government agency with its own elected board of directors), while others are for-profit businesses.
These water providers have highly trained employees who operate treatment plants and test the water regularly to ensure it meets strict state and federal drinking water standards. Your local water provider is the first line of defense in providing safe drinking water, but there’s also state and federal regulatory agencies that regulate the agencies and non-profit groups fighting on behalf of the few communities that don’t have safe drinking water.
The vast majority of communities have access to safe drinking water, but there are communities in California where the water doesn’t always flow from the tap or is considered unsafe to drink because it does not meet state and federal standards. Often times, these communities are located in rural areas, outside the boundaries of an established water provider, and rely on wells with untreated water. In some cases, there is a water provider, but not enough funding for expensive water treatment.
“Necessary funding has been the biggest challenge preventing some communities in California from having safe drinking water,” said Cindy Tuck, Deputy Executive Director for Government Relations at the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA). ACWA is a statewide association representing more than 450 public water agencies.
“For most water providers, the cost to ensure safe drinking water is paid by customers through water rates,” Tuck continued. “However, these water providers often rely on additional state or federal grants or loans for infrastructure projects, such as building new treatment facilities. These other funding options are limited and generally have not been available for ongoing treatment costs.”
Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom, the state Legislature, environmental justice organizations, ACWA, private water suppliers, agricultural groups and others came together around a funding solution that resulted in the creation of the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund. The fund, plus state budget allocations, resulted in the potential for $130 million per year for 11 years to help disadvantaged communities in California that do not have that access to safe drinking water. Exactly how much funding is available each year will depend on the status of the state’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund.
On July 7, the state adopted the first plan for how the money will be spent. The plan prioritizes cases in which a critical water shortage or outage could occur, and communities where the water doesn’t meet state and federal drinking water standards that protect public health.
“Adoption of the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund’s first spending plan was a major milestone in the state’s ongoing effort to ensure access to safe drinking water for California communities that currently lack that access,” Tuck said. “We are now eager for the funding to be used on solutions that will work in the communities that need it most.”
Another avenue toward progress is consolidation of small, failing water systems with water suppliers with compliant systems. In 2015, California passed a law that provided the state with authority to mandate consolidations when appropriate. But collaboration between both sides, government regulators and the affected community is preferred for a smooth and successful consolidation.
In addition, the state is currently developing a statewide needs analysis of water systems to better understand the breadth of the problem. Once the analysis is complete, it will guide funding to where it is most needed, and to solutions that will be effective.
About the Author
Dale Hunter is Executive Director of the California African American Water Education Foundation (CAAWEF). It is a nonprofit water education organization focused on the African American community in California. Formed in 2019, CAAWEF is based in Sacramento.
The information in this article is brought to you in partnership with the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA), a non-profit statewide association of public water agencies whose more than 450 members are responsible for about 90 % of the water deliveries in California.