Gov. Gavin Newsom signs SB 403 into law, giving State Water Board more authority over small community water woes
TULARE COUNTY – On Sept. 23, after crushing the republican opposition in the recall election, Governor Gavin Newsom got back to governing and made a trip to smoke-choked Tulare County to sign a robust $15 billion climate package as the KNP Complex fire raged in the mountains above. During his trip to the Sequoias, he also signed a slew of water bills—among them extending the water utility shutoff moratorium through at least the end of the year and requiring water shortage contingency plans for small water suppliers—another tendril of climate change directly impacting Tulare County residents parched at the center of the West’s water crisis.
“California is doubling down on our nation-leading policies to confront the climate crisis head-on while protecting the hardest-hit communities,” Newsom said. “We’re deploying a comprehensive approach to meet the sobering challenges of the extreme weather patterns that imperil our way of life and the Golden State as we know it, including the largest investment in state history to bolster wildfire resilience, funding to tackle the drought emergency while building long-term water resilience, and strategic investments across the spectrum to protect communities from extreme heat, sea level rise and other climate risks that endanger the most vulnerable among us.”
Among the signings was SB 403, penned by Senate majority whip Lena Gonzalez to, among other revisions, arm water districts and state government with the tools to take proactive measures in consolidating water systems serving disadvantaged communities to a more dependable water supply.
A prime example of the woes of previous water law is the two road town of Tooleville, just outside Exeter, which has suffered undrinkable water for the last two decades. SB 88, the older consolidation legislation, dictated that a system must consistently fail to provide an adequate supply of safe drinking water before the state can take action. The unincorporated area hovered above and just below the maximum contaminant levels (MCL) for nitrates from farming fertilizers and septic systems, coliform bacteria from low water pressure and leaky pipes and the cancerous heavy metal hexavalent chromium (chrom-6) for years.
To Tooleville’s dismay, in 2017 chrom-6 regulation in California was struck down in the Superior Court of Sacramento County after the California State Water Board was sued by the California Manufacturers and Technology Association and the Solano County Taxpayers Association for beginning regulation without completing the required economic feasibility studies. This put a wrench in Tooleville’s ability to claim “consistent failure” as the contaminant most consistently over the MCL in recent years had now become unregulated due to a technical error on the state’s behalf.
It wasn’t until this August—when one of Tooleville’s two domestic wells stopped producing water, throwing the community into an immediate emergency—that the state kicked it into gear and handed down an order giving Tooleville and Exeter six months to hash out a voluntary consolidation before becoming mandatory with much less cooperation.
Blanca Escobedo, the Tulare County regional policy manager with Leadership Counsel, an advocacy organization that helps disadvantaged communities like Tooleville with legal counsel and negotiation strategies, said SB 403 is a welcome sight for communities, some of which have had to wait a generation for access to a clean and reliable water supply.
“If [the state] is just waiting for something to happen, that’s really poor planning on local and state agencies as well, because it’s costly, for one. Sometimes you have to provide bottled water, like how Tooleville is being provided bottled water on a biweekly basis, and you have to install emergency water tanks, and things like that,” Escobedo said. “We figured [SB 403] would cut down on a lot of time and stress.”
Escobedo said while Tooleville was certainly an inspiration for the bill, Leadership Counsel worked with Senator Lena Gonzalez—who serves The Southeast Los Angeles and Long Beach areas—despite the differences in the communities they serve, as the bill covers a variety of threats for at-risk systems.
“Supply and contamination are kind of the main issues we see in the Central Valley, but also a lot of small water systems don’t have the [capital] to repair their infrastructure,” Escobedo said. “For example, if a well fails, not just because it becomes dry but if a pump fails, or anything like that, it can be very costly. There’s a lot of communities that can’t afford that because they can’t afford to pass that cost to their ratepayers.”
Cutler-Orosi, the largest unincorporated area in Tulare County, is a local example of a system limping along at partial power. Orosi Public Utility District is operating only four of six wells as two of them are inactive due to nitrate contamination—one also over a development dispute. Cutler Public Utility District (CPUD) is only operating two of their four wells due to nitrate contamination. CPUD currently charges a flat rate for water service—an increasingly problematic system used in many small communities in the Central Valley—and contamination costs money to fix, money that ratepayers miles below the median income level cannot afford to pay.
Consolidation is also certainly not the fix-all answer for many communities in Tulare County struggling with water issues due to how spread out many of the communities are. Giving the government a bigger oar to row through water issues doesn’t come with all smiles, even in the Central Valley where water is the most prevalent problem in disadvantaged communities. Jessi Snyder, program director for Self-Help Enterprises, said the nonprofit never openly supported the bill—nor do they oppose it. She said she hopes the bill will bring more people a safe, reliable source of drinking water, but the devil can be in the details.
“[SB 403] takes the existing authority that the state has to consolidate its failing water systems, and consolidate ones that are at-risk, and broadens it to domestic wells. That’s a big change, the State Water Board has never previously ever had any kind of authority over communities that are formed by private domestic wells.”
Snyder said this gives the State Water Board more influence over communities that lack a community water system than they ever did before. She said the State Water Board has a good needs assessment system that prioritizes where projects and money need to be focused, but granting significant authority to the State Water Board through empowering mandates is a different thing.
“My main concern is [SB 403] is another way for someone else to make decisions for small communities,” Snyder said. “We really value community driven, community supported infrastructure projects, because nobody’s left but the community in the end to run it, and it needs to work for them. We always put communities in the driver’s seat, and this takes away a little bit of that.”