California lawmakers are considering a plan to help poor communities afflicted by contaminated water. It could be a model for the nation.
By Laurel Firestone and Susana De Anda
Ms. Firestone and Ms. De Anda run a non-profit in California’s San Joaquin Valley focused on solving drinking water problems.
A taped water fountain spout in 2016 at Foothill Intermediate School in Loma Rica, Calif. About one million Californians have contaminated drinking water.CreditRich Pedroncelli/Associated Press
SACRAMENTO — In 2007, the small town of Lanare in California’s Central Valley finally got what it had desperately needed for years — a treatment plant to remove high levels of arsenic in the drinking water. But the victory was short-lived. Just months after the $1.3 million federally funded plant began running, the town was forced to shut it down because it ran out of money to operate and maintain it.
More than a decade later, the plant remains closed and Lanare’s tap water is still contaminated — as is the drinking water piped to about a million other Californians around the state. The common barrier to solving the problem is that communities lack access to government financing to run their water treatment systems.
Now, for the first time, a solution is within reach in California. State lawmakers are expected to vote this month to establish reliable funding sources to help ensure, for the first time, that all state residents have access to safe and affordable drinking water. It could be a model for other states.
Ensuring safe drinking water has become “a growing challenge in the face of aging infrastructure, impaired source water and strained community finances,” a study published in February in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found.
In 2015, the same year that the water crisis in Flint, Mich., made headlines, more than 21 million people nationwide relied on drinking water systems that violated basic legal health standards, according to the study. Throughout the country, low-income communities disproportionately bear the brunt of this crisis. In California, drinking water contamination is most likely to afflict small, low-income communities of color, particularly Latino farmworker communities that have not benefited from the tremendous economic growth in the San Francisco Bay Area and other urban centers. However, nearly every county in the state has a system without safe drinking water.
In 2012, after a hard-fought grass-roots campaign, California became the first and only state to pass a right-to-water act. That bill enshrined “safe, clean, affordable and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking and sanitary purposes” as a basic human right. Yet more than five years later, legislators have yet to take the bold actions necessary to make that guarantee a reality.
Hundreds of communities in California still lack access to safe drinking water in their homes, schools, parks and businesses. Some families spend up to 10 percent of their income on clean water, having to pay for bottled water on top of their monthly water bills. At the same time, leaders of local water boards have been frustrated in their efforts to improve conditions because their financially stretched water systems are ineligible for grants and loans for treatment upgrades.
This is not just a problem in California. As the recent study in the National Academy of Sciences journal found, “regulatory compliance” with drinking water regulations “can be a challenge for rural systems due to limited financial resources and technical expertise.” The study also noted that small systems “face restricted access to loans and outside financing.”
Now a solution may be at hand in California. After more than a decade of intense community activism, negotiations and studies, a plan to help communities tackle drinking water problems has won the support not only of environmental justice and public health advocates but also of leaders from business, agriculture, labor and many local governments and water suppliers, though not all.
The bipartisan proposal would establish a Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund financed by fees assessed on dairy producers and fertilizer manufacturers, and by voluntary, 95-cent-per-month contributions by water customers through their water bills.
The agricultural fee revenues would be targeted to address nitrate contamination from fertilizers, a common problem in farming areas. Money raised by the voluntary contributions, which would be collected from water customers unless they opt out, would be directed to disadvantaged communities suffering from water contamination caused by a range of pollutants, such as arsenic and uranium. Together, these sources are expected to raise $100 million or more a year.
A recent survey found that nearly 70 percent of Californians would be willing to pay an additional dollar a month on their water bills to ensure safe drinking water for everyone. Now it is up to the California Legislature to pass this legislation and send it to the governor before the session ends on Aug. 31. This would help realize the promise lawmakers made in 2012 when they made safe drinking water a basic human right.