California on Friday was declared to be out of compliance with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act because it is sitting on $455 million that should be spent to improve local drinking water systems.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency submitted the notice after years of fruitless efforts to get the state to document its spending under the program, said Jared Blumenfeld, regional administrator for the agency.
The program is administered on behalf of the EPA by the California Department of Public Health, using funds allocated by Congress. Typically, the state makes loans from the program to cities, counties and other local agencies to improve drinking water treatment systems, usually to remove harmful chemicals or seek a cleaner supply.
"We certainly hear from communities that they need the money and they are not being able to access it," Blumenfeld said. "The facts speak for themselves. The money is not going out the door as quickly as it should."
Ron Chapman, California public health director, replied to the EPA on Friday with a letter to Blumenfeld. "I want you to know that I acknowledge the seriousness of the notice," Chapman wrote, "and will take all steps necessary to address the compliance issues identified in the letter."
The State Water Resources Control Board also administers funds from the Safe Drinking Water Act for sewage treatment projects. Blumenfeld said that program is in compliance.
Blumenfeld said the problem is not unique to California, but the scope is larger in California than elsewhere. As an example, he noted the second largest problem exists in Texas, which sits on $310 million in Safe Drinking Water Act funds.
Among other things, the EPA found that the Public Health Department has not adequately accounted for ongoing repayments to the fund by loan recipients. EPA estimated repayments so far at about $260 million, additional revenue available for new clean water projects that has not been committed.
Another problem, Blumenfeld said, is that when California does spend the money, it often chooses projects that are not "shovel ready." So the money is allocated for a project but remains parked for years. "If you had reprogrammed (the money) more effectively, there could be short-term projects that are ready now that could already be funded, as opposed to funding projects that are not ready to start," he said.
The EPA is giving the state 60 days to submit a corrective action plan. If the state does not, or the plan is not acceptable, the EPA may suspend payments under the program.
Contact The Bee's Matt Weiser, (916) 321-1264. Follow him on Twitter @matt_weiser.