California slow to pass along federal water project funds

Published: Monday, Aug. 5, 2013 - 5:53 pm
Last Modified: Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2013 - 7:54 am

One Tulare County school has used bottled water for a decade to prevent students from drinking from a contaminated water supply.

Tiny, little-known communities such as San Lucas and Monson have worked for years on plans to combat arsenic and nitrates that have rendered their water unsafe for human consumption.

The massive water agency in Los Angeles has $135 million worth of projects lined up to purify water and protect a vulnerable reservoir.

These are a few of the parties that stand to receive money from a drinking water fund under fire for failing to spend nearly half a billion dollars, the highest rate of unliquidated money of any state participating in a federally funded program mandated by a 1996 update to the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Across California, water agencies and other local governments are struggling not only to deal with dirty water, but to navigate a state-run project funding system that critics say is slow to act. Lawmakers are looking to overhaul the way hundreds of millions of dollars are spent to clean up California's water.

"It just takes a lot of patience because the wheels turn very, very slowly," said Jessie Snyder of the Visalia-based Self-Help Enterprises, which helps local communities secure funding. "Hanging in there for three or four years while we wait for funding is just a basic challenge."

Earlier this year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reprimanded the California Department of Public Health, which oversees the drinking water fund, for failing to distribute $455 million intended for water projects.

A letter from the EPA faulted the Department of Public Health for "inadequate personnel and resources" and lax financial oversight.

Officials had trouble tracking cash flow, and frequent lags between when money was awarded and when it was distributed impeded launching new projects, according to regional EPA administrator Jared Blumenfeld.

"The first question I get from folks in D.C. is, 'Well, does that mean folks in California don't need the money if it's not being drawn down?' And the answer is no, there's a very pressing and urgent need for money for drinking water," Blumenfeld said.

California doesn't lack for potential destinations for the money. A 2011 EPA report estimated the state will need $44.5 billion worth of water infrastructure improvement over the next 20 years. A list of "priority projects" on the Department of Public Health's website catalogs nearly 5,000 projects that, in sum, would cost about $12.1 billion.

An inefficient repayment system deserves much of the blame for the unspent funds, said Mark Starr, deputy director of the department's center for environmental health. Water systems that received loans would be slow to submit invoices for their work, or DPH would commit funding before a contract was in place.

Assemblyman Henry Perea, D-Fresno, cited shortcomings in managing the drinking water fund as the impetus for a bill that would transfer authority for managing the fund to the State Water Resources Control Board.

"I'm glad that U.S. EPA recognized what a lot of us have recognized in the last year and a half or so, and that's a clean drinking water program at DPH is inefficient and has been broken for a long time," Perea said.

In response to the EPA's letter, the Department of Public Health submitted a blueprint for allocating and spending money more efficiently. The EPA signed off in late July.

The plan pledges to update DPH's funding process and hire more staff. It also commits to sending out $878 million by mid-2016 and identifies $396 million worth of viable projects for the 2013-2014 fiscal year.

Water advocates remain focused on getting money to impoverished, isolated California communities that rely on water sources - or a single water source - laced with contaminants such as nitrates or arsenic.

Such communities often lack the technical knowledge needed to put a proposal together or the financial wherewithal to manage a new water system. In some cases, they also lack the legal status to apply for money.

"I'm hopeful that by (the Department of Public Health) focusing on pushing the money out, they'll be able to equally focus resources towards small communities that haven't had drinking water," said Omar Carrillo, a policy analyst for the Community Water Center. "These folks, sometimes they don't even know this funding is available."

The EPA will be monitoring California to make sure the state complies with the plan. Starr said that, despite a federal imperative to spend money, DPH will still strive to balance large, expensive infrastructure with small projects.

"We have a bit of tension with trying to get a lot of money out the door, and that's most easy to do with larger systems and larger projects," Starr said. "But our No. 1 priority is the smaller systems and disadvantaged communities."

That includes identifying water systems in need of work and dispatching staff and contractors to help small communities put applications together, Starr said. The DPH has a goal of sending at least a fifth of grants to disadvantaged communities.

But Bob Fredenburg, a consultant to the Assembly Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee, said the plan submitted to the EPA lacks a firm commitment to more swiftly deploy money to remote communities with tainted water supplies.

The water fund replenishes itself in part through interest on loans, leading to "a reliance on loans and those entities that can most easily repay," Fredenburg said. Meanwhile, the lengthy route for obtaining money can be prohibitively complicated.

"The problem you have with small communities is not only getting the money out the door, it's getting the small communities in the door," Fredenburg said.

Another bill, by Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, would establish an emergency drinking water grant fund that draws money from an annual fee imposed by the Department of Public Health in lieu of collecting interest on loans. The goal is to expedite the process for thirsty communities getting access to water.

"When a community needs emergency money, it needs it now," Fredenburg said.

Call Jeremy B. White, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5543. Follow him on Twitter @CapitolAlert.

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