Saving Troubled Water Systems Requires Flexible Solutions, Not Mandates

California’s five-year drought highlighted the struggles faced by small water systems. Legal and policy solutions are in the works, but they must remain adaptable to meet the needs of small communities.

Written by Nell Green Nylen, Michael Kiparsky Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
Sylvana Beltran, 13, catches water dripping off her father's arm while he fills a tank with water in Porterville, Calif., in July 2015. The Beltrans volunteer with the Porterville Area Coordinating Council, an organization that provides assistance to residents in need of water. Many wells in the area went dry or suffer from chronic contamination.Photo by Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via Getty Images

During the hot summer months of 2014, East Porterville, Calif., became a poster child for vulnerable drinking water. Hundreds of shallow wells in this unincorporated Tulare County community ran dry in the midst of statewide drought. Some families had to wait years to have running water again, when their homes were finally connected to the city of Porterville’s municipal water supply.

While East Porterville’s experience made headlines around the country, the serious drinking-water problems facing other communities across California are just beginning to receive much-needed attention. Today, an estimated 300 disadvantaged communities across the state live with naturally occurring contaminants or a legacy of industrial and agricultural pollution in their drinking water because they can’t afford cleaner water supplies or adequate treatment.

To address these problems and ensure that all communities can access clean, reliable water, California needs to reverse decades of underinvestment. Often, the solutions will involve water system consolidation: a spectrum of collaborative efforts to merge aspects of two or more water systems or to extend water service to those not connected to a publicly regulated system. Consolidation can help achieve economies of scale that make it feasible to address drinking-water quality and reliability problems.

Increased attention to the safety and affordability of drinking water has highlighted the value of consolidation for addressing drinking-water pollution that disproportionately affects low-income communities and communities of color. The California Legislature passed a law in 2015 that gave the State Water Resources Control Board the power to order consolidation for water systems serving disadvantaged communities if they consistently fail to provide an adequate supply of safe drinking water.

Additional changes in state policy aimed at facilitating consolidation are a good idea in principle. But how useful new policies are in practice will depend on the details of the new tools they offer and the new requirements they impose.

Several bills related to consolidation are now on the governor’s desk. One of these, A.B. 2050, would mandate the creation of new regional agencies – “small system water authorities” – with the power to absorb and operate public water systems that don’t comply with drinking-water standards – under certain circumstances.

In March, U.C. Berkeley’s Center for Law, Energy & the Environment hosted a workshop with water experts from around the state to learn from the more than 100 consolidation projects that have been completed or are ongoing in California. Our workshop synthesis suggests several important considerations that should guide policymakers’ efforts to facilitate consolidation:

  • First, policy changes should be grounded in experience gained from past consolidation efforts. Policymakers should solicit input on proposals regarding consolidation from a broad range of people with “boots on the ground” to ensure new policies reflect the needs of communities affected by drinking-water problems and by potential solutions.
  • Second, flexibility is key to finding workable local and regional solutions. Therefore, policymakers should focus on creating additional tools – and avoid limiting the range of options available – for consolidation. A recent U.C. Davis study found that two-thirds of disadvantaged unincorporated communities in the San Joaquin Valley are located within 500ft of a water system that meets state standards. In many cases, the simplest and most cost-effective solution may be to connect to these successful water systems. However, other failing systems may be best served by management assistance – shared book-keeping and billing systems, for example. Any new policies should preserve flexibility for state and local decision-makers to choose the best fit for each situation.
  • Third, the practical implications of new policies intended to facilitate consolidation could make or break their effectiveness. Policymakers need to carefully consider the institutional and financial capacities needed to implement the tools they provide. For example, new administrative burdens on state and local agencies, such as new notification and reporting systems, should be tailored to support effective drinking-water solutions. Similarly, the state needs to support solutions with more than just words. Adequate funding – to support infrastructure improvements, operations and maintenance, and management needs – will be crucial. New requirements that are not appropriately supported are likely to create more problems than they solve.

These considerations should inform the governor’s evaluation of the consolidation bills that are currently on his desk, as well as future legislative and administrative efforts to confront the drinking-water crisis faced by too many California communities. Keeping these considerations in mind, policymakers can lay a flexible and supportive groundwork to help communities find effective solutions that ensure reliable access to clean water, the most fundamental ingredient of life.

The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.

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