The images are stark. People carrying empty jugs, lining up to fill them with water trucked to their towns. Others waiting in lines to take showers in stalls set up in church parking lots.
These look like third-world conditions. In fact they are images of California. It may be hard to believe, but the eighth largest economy in the world is home to more than 275,000 people without access to safe and reliable drinking water.
The drought has had widespread public health impacts, perhaps the most profound of which is the lack of safe, reliable and clean water for residents of rural communities. Many such communities have dealt for years with inadequate access to drinking water. The drought has made it worse in some communities – by concentrating toxics in depleted groundwater supplies – while in others the water supply has simply dried up.
Nearly 500 California communities that rely on public water systems lack access to clean, safe and affordable drinking water. The hardest-hit communities, many of them rural, unincorporated parts of the San Joaquin Valley not served by larger municipal water agencies, lack the capacity and the funding to maintain a reliable water supply.
In 2014 the governor released the California Water Action Plan, which identified investments in safe drinking water, particularly in disadvantaged communities, as a state priority.
The plan outlined several strategies to improve access to clean water, including consolidating water quality programs to make them more efficient and resilient; establishing long-term funding assistance for disadvantaged communities, for water supply and secure wastewater systems; and identifying and monitoring drought-vulnerable public water systems to prevent or ease shortfalls in supply.
California voters also expressed support for these solutions. Proposition 1, the water bond, passed in 2014, includes $260 million to fund improvements in public drinking water systems.
To date, hundreds of millions of dollars have been committed to emergency food and water supplies, conservation and infrastructure projects across California. The state is also encouraging voluntary consolidations of troubled water systems with larger, better-funded systems. New statutory authority also allows the state to require consolidation, when necessary, in the face of prolonged drought.
When consolidation is not an option, the state can offer technical and managerial assistance to struggling water systems. However, small systems serving low-income communities often lack the additional funding that is necessary to cover the gap between what ratepayers can pay and the actual cost of operating the new water systems.
We must also address the unintended consequences of Proposition 218, a voter initiative passed in 1996 that limits the ability of local water agencies to raise revenues to pay for local needs. Without additional revenue, many water agencies defer necessary maintenance and improvements to vital water infrastructure.
Unfortunately, Proposition 218 also serves as a major impediment to public water systems being able to create water rate assistance programs for seniors and low-income residents. We must address these problems, while maintaining ratepayer protections.
The drought has shone a bright light on many flaws in California’s water system. One of the greatest of them, and certainly the most tragic, is the lack of access for many Californians to clean, safe, affordable drinking water. We must work together to speed the implementation of new regional solutions for providing water to all California communities.
Matthew Rodriquez is secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency.