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Every day residents in about 160 communities across California turn on their faucets and out flows water so contaminated that it does not meet public health standards. In unincorporated areas in the Central Valley like Tooleville and East Orosi in Tulare County this deplorable situation has dragged on for a decade.
Now, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has shone a glaring spotlight on the problem of tainted drinking water, lambasting the state of California for sitting on $455 million in federal dollars intended for timely water system upgrades.
The EPA's stern reproach has placed the state Department of Public Health, which manages the upgrades, in the uncomfortable position of having to explain to the federal government and state lawmakers why the agency has not done a more efficient job of bringing drinkable water to these communities.
The department blames staffing shortages and hurdles working with small communities many of them low-income that are ill-equipped to manage upgraded water systems. Meanwhile, critics describe the department as a ponderous bureaucracy that has proved itself to be either incompetent or indifferent when managing the money that these communities desperately seek. Irked at the department's track record, some lawmakers want the state's drinking water program removed entirely from the department's control.
Statewide, undrinkable water is piped to nearly 60,000 people who must pay utilities for unsafe water and buy water for cooking and drinking at the supermarket. Tainted water is used for showering, dish washing and lawn watering. By comparison, drinkable water is piped to 7,000-plus state-regulated water systems serving 98 percent of Californians.
"We have Third World conditions right here in California," said Maria Herrera of the Visalia-based Community Water Center. "You have to watch your kids to make sure they aren't drinking tap water."
Residents' fears about contamination are well-founded: The contamination plaguing the water systems is caused primarily when naturally occurring arsenic and agriculture-linked nitrates leach into wells. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says ingestion of inorganic arsenic can increase the risk of cancer, and excessive nitrate exposure can cause pregnancy complications and a serious condition that decreases a body's ability to carry oxygen to tissue.
Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation declaring it is the state's policy that every person has a human right to safe, clean, affordable and accessible drinking water. Brown's Drinking Water Stakeholder Group also told him that disadvantaged communities in unincorporated areas should have access to immediate, interim sources of safe drinking water while they wait for development of long-term, safe water sources. In recent months, a dozen communities have applied for interim water, and so far the state has approved only half the requests.
It was two months ago that the EPA sent a scorching letter to the state Department of Public Health, informing the agency that it was out of compliance with the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act because of the unspent $455 million sitting in the bank when many communities are in grave need of clean water.
The state's record in this arena, EPA's regional director Jared Blumenfeld noted, was the worst in the country. If the state fails to provide an acceptable correction plan, the EPA can take several actions, including the withholding of funds.
In politics, a development such as the state's receipt of the EPA letter often has a way of dynamiting legislative logjams, making possible some resolution. But there is a danger here as well for the pressure on politicians becomes enormous to take action to convey that they are resolving the crisis and that this messy matter is in no way due to their inattention. Solutions crafted in such hurry-up time frames don't necessarily produce the best result.
At a state Senate Environmental Quality Committee oversight hearing in May, state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, a Santa Barbara Democrat, eloquently spelled out the problem posed by the unspent money:
"I am kind of stunned," she said. "Water in California is more valuable than gold, and drinking water, of course, for the safety of the public is No. 1.
"We have a real problem right now with the public because no matter how you try to slice this they see $455 million that hasn't been spent, that has generated a response from the EPA that says you need to explain why you are sitting on all this money. It's a terrible optic."
Dr. Ronald Chapman, the Department of Public Health's director, readily acknowledged to the committee that the agency had done "a terrible job getting the money out the door," and he added that the department is making changes aimed at meeting EPA's criticisms.
Chapman and his deputy, Mark Starr, testified that they recently reduced the fund's unspent monies to $375 million. They also pledged to shrink that amount by many millions in the years to come. By law, a community must demonstrate technical, managerial and financial capacity before its system is approved so one sought-after solution has been to work out mergers between a small system and a larger one with safe tap water.
About 95 percent of the communities with tainted water have applied to the state for help bringing their drinking water into compliance, and the department recently created a unit focused on small communities' water system problems.
It remains to be seen whether the state, facing a deadline Monday, will propose improvements that convince EPA's Blumenfeld that California is on the right track.
In the meantime, a measure moving through the Legislature relates directly to this controversy. Authored before the EPA sent its letter to the state, Assembly Bill 145 by Assemblyman Henry Perea, D-Fresno, would transfer the state's drinking water program from the Department of Public Health to the State Water Resources Control Board.
Perea says he concluded the move was necessary after watching the Department of Public Health fail to approve the Cutler-Orosi Water Treatment Plant project in Tulare County even though, he said, all the department's requirements had been met.
Jennifer Clary of Clean Water Action, which backs Perea's bill, says the State Water Resources Control Board "does not have a funding backlog and is more professionally run" than the health department, which she described as dysfunctional: "It has multiple layers of bureaucracy and inadequate legal and financial support for the program. A department that can ignore for a decade or more people who don't have safe drinking water is not an agency that protects public health."
Perea's legislation which has won Assembly passage and is pending in the Senate has major foes, including the Association of California Water Agencies, whose members are responsible for 90 percent of water delivered to cities, farms and businesses; the Health Officers Association of California; and the California Municipal Utilities Association. These groups argue that the drinking water program generally works well and should stay in the health-focused Department of Public Health.
If the bill were amended to move only the drinking water program's Safe Drinking Water State Revolving Fund to the state water board and not the entire program the coalition against the bill would drop its opposition, said Cindy Tuck of the Association of California Water Agencies. But the bill currently moves the whole drinking water program, and many of the measure's foes see that as a foolish fix.
Tuck said that one concern is that the water board "has too much on its plate important issues like water flow for the Delta, wastewater and water rights, and drinking water shouldn't have to compete for attention" with those programs.
Randi Knott, a lobbyist for the city of Sacramento, which opposes the bill, said: "This measure would throw the baby out with the bath water. I have trouble understanding why we'd move the drinking water program away from where it works beautifully with this one exception."
Knott added that if only the revolving fund were moved to the state water board, "that will get the money out without moving an entire bureaucracy into a new bureaucracy where public health is not its focus."
Both sides in this fight press their points vehemently. Several dedicated government officials whom I have long respected tell me that moving the drinking water program out of the Department of Public Health is an ill-conceived, costly solution: Instead, they say, craft a fix for that program's funding system, which everyone agrees has been broken.
On the other side, groups supporting Perea's legislation argue that the health department has shown itself to be a moribund institution mired in bureaucracy. They say the state water board would do a better job running the drinking water program, dispensing funds and getting safe tap water to the scores of communities that scandalously in 2013 don't yet have that "human right."
While lawmakers wrestle with how to shape a solution, people living with tainted water in areas such as the southern Tulare Lake Basin wait and wait.
"People's frustration comes from wanting a solution and not understanding that why it takes sometimes five to six years to get an application approved," said the Community Water Center's Herrera. "These people live with this day after day they can't put the problem aside. They wonder also if the process is so slow because of who they are: Many of them are farmworkers living in small, unincorporated areas."
Susan Sward is a writer who lives in San Francisco. She covered the Legislature for the Associated Press for almost a decade in the 1970s.