California is assuring the federal government that it now has a plan to provide untainted drinking water more quickly to more than 160 small communities whose water fails to meet public health standards.
In a letter to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the state Department of Public Health's director, Dr. Ron Chapman, outlined steps his agency will take to improve its performance. Among the corrective actions he cited were increased staffing and a new funding model aimed at financing upgrades more rapidly.
"The increased focus on building small water system capacity will help those projects to become shovel-ready sooner," he wrote.
Chapman was responding to a sternly worded letter he received two months ago from the EPA's regional director, Jared Blumenfeld, who stated California was in violation of the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act because it had $455 million in unspent federal dollars in the bank monies intended for timely assistance to communities seeking to upgrade their contaminated water systems.
Currently nearly 60,000 people many of them living in small, disadvantaged communities in the San Joaquin Valley and elsewhere pay utilities for tainted tap water they cannot drink.
All in all, Chapman's letter constituted both a carefully crafted, respectful acknowledgment of the department's mismanagement in this arena and a clear bid to avoid any EPA sanctions.
What was not said in the letter is interesting as well to any student of bureaucratic politics in Sacramento: Predictably, the letter did not mention that this controversy has helped to fuel dissatisfaction with the Department of Public Health, which critics deride as a hidebound institution. Just as the department attempts to demonstrate that it is tackling this problem forcefully, a fight is occurring in the Legislature over what agency should manage the state's drinking water program, which is currently housed in the Department of Public Health. That program regulates 7,500 public drinking water systems, which state officials say provide 98 percent of Californians with water meeting public health standards. Some department critics want the drinking water program moved to the State Water Resources Control Board, which they say is less bureaucratic.
A bill requiring that move AB 145 by Assemblyman Henry Perea, D-Fresno has won Assembly approval and is pending in the Senate. Chapman's department has taken no position on the legislation, and some powerful foes, including the Association of California Water Agencies, argue the program generally runs well and should stay in the Department of Public Health.
Chapman's letter, sent last Monday, echoes a point he made in May to a state Senate oversight committee: He said Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation last year demonstrating that he is committed to ensuring that all Californians have access to drinkable water. Chapman stated that his agency projects disbursements of more than $800 million in the three fiscal years from 2013-14 to 2015-16 to help California communities seeking untainted water.
The EPA is reviewing Chapman's letter and will respond by Monday. If the EPA concludes the proposed state corrective action is inadequate, it could withhold funds for water system upgrades.
Susan Sward is a writer who lives in San Francisco. She covered the Legislature for the Associated Press in the 1970s.