Local residents among the most likely to drink harmful water

State audit reports Valley residents are most at-risk for long term health risks from failing water systems due in part to the State Water Board’s lack of urgency in providing needed funding

SACRAMENTO – Rural residents in Tulare County are more likely to be exposed to harmful water than a third of the state’s population and the State Water Board has been slow to flow funds into areas to fix failing water systems.

A report by the California State Auditor last month revealed Tulare County was among nine counties in the state that represented almost 90% of Californians vulnerable to water systems with poor water quality. Tulare County also has one of the smallest populations of the nine counties, meaning a higher percentage of residents here are served by water systems at risk for harmful contaminants. The report stated between 20,000 to 60,000 Tulare County residents are connected to failing systems, or between 4% and 13% of the county’s population. 

State Senator Melissa Hurtado (D-Sanger) chastised the State Water Resources Control Board (State Water Board) for its inability to provide critical financial and technical assistance to those most in need when they need it most.

“It’s outrageous that a state as rich as California continues delivering unsafe drinking water to nearly one-million residents – with Central Valley residents most at risk,” Hurtado said in a released statement. “The potential consequences are catastrophic, causing long-term health problems for some of our most vulnerable neighbors.”

The report stated more than 370 systems providing water to more than 920,000 people were not meeting water quality standards as of December 2021. Nearly two‑thirds of these systems have been failing for at least three years and 150 of them have been failing for at least five years, with hundreds more at risk. More than two-thirds are located in disadvantaged communities with significant financial need. State law classifies a disadvantaged community as those with a median household income less than 80% of the statewide annual household income. Severely disadvantaged communities have a median income household of less than 60% of statewide average. The State Water Board oversees 7,400 drinking water systems in the state and is in charge of distributing millions in state funding to address water quality issues. 

“The State Water Board has funding available to help these failing systems improve the quality of their drinking water. Nonetheless, the board has generally demonstrated a lack of urgency in providing this critical assistance,” State auditor Michael Tilden wrote in the report’s cover letter.

Unhealthy Water

Vulnerable communities in California face long term, negative health effects because of unsafe drinking water from the state water system. The large majority of those affected by contaminated water are those in the Central Valley.

According to the audit from Tilden, as of December 2021 the State Water Board reported more than 370 water systems exceeded maximum contaminant levels for substances harmful to human health. The failing water systems serve almost a million Californians in the Central Valley and surrounding regions including Monterey, San Luis Obispo and San Bernardino counties. 

Signed on July 26, the audit was led by acting chief deputy state auditor John Baier who used the State Water Board’s own data to show an additional 432 water systems, serving over 1 million people, are currently at risk of failing to meet water quality standards at state and federal levels. More than 85% of Californians using these at-risk water systems in 2022 are located in the interior parts of Southern California, Los Angeles County and the Central Valley. Residents who only have access to contaminated water face possible long-term, negative health outcomes.

One of the most common water contaminants is arsenic, affecting 70 public water systems, according to the State Water Board’s 2020 Annual Compliance Report. Exposure to arsenic in drinking water, bathing and cooking can cause skin damage and circulatory problems, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

A report from the State Water Board and EPA said other contaminants include nitrates, combined uranium, total trihalomethanes and total haloacetic acids, all contaminants found in the runoff from fertilizer or sewage. Almost all of these toxins can lead to an increased risk of cancer, as well as kidney and liver issues and central nervous system problems. Nitrate exposure in infants can lead to serious illness and even death if left untreated.

Slow to act

The report noted the State Water Board’s Division of Financial Assistance has awarded $1.7 billion in loan and grant funding to assist water systems with infrastructure projects across California from July 2016 to December 2021.  These projects include drilling new water wells, replacing old pipes and installing treatment plants. Loans were also granted for technical assistance to water systems. Nearly half of all loans and grants, $852 million, went to systems serving disadvantaged or severely disadvantaged communities and populations.

During that same time frame, Tulare County was among 10 counties to receive more than 80% of the funding distributed by the State Water Board. Also from July 2016 to December 2021, State Water Board data classified Tulare County as a county with a large number of failing water systems. It was one of the counties that received 40% of project funding from the State Water Board along with Los Angeles, Kern, Stanislaus and San Bernardino counties. These five counties make up over half of populations served by failing water systems in the state. Despite the funding, there are more failing water systems now than when the state began tracking it in 2017. In the last five years, the number of failing water systems has gone from 308 to 418. 

The auditor’s report attributed the rising number to the State Water Board’s lack of goals and performance metrics, which has lengthened the period of time it can take to fix the water system. It stated the agency’s process of providing funds to failing water systems “lacks urgency” and takes too long to make any actual progress. A survey of 97 failing water systems, acknowledged that disadvantaged communities with small water systems often struggle with completing applications to receive funding from the board, which are “very lengthy and take a significant amount of time for approval.”

“The results of the survey suggest that the State Water Board could improve its communications with water systems and revise its application and funding process,” the audit stated.

The audit stated that project managers and State Water Board policy display that helping water systems with applications for funding takes a lower priority than other duties. To fix that, the board assigned more technical assistance providers to aid water systems with completing their applications but it is unclear if the assistance is speeding up or slowing down the process.

The application process is described as “cumbersome” by the report, with several parts and many requirements. The audit also stated that sometimes State Water Board project managers may not identify missing documents until after the application has been completed, which leads to delays. Additionally, the report stated when water systems change plans, the review process becomes delayed due to the State Water Board requesting new information from the water systems and having to review the documents again.

The State Water Board breaks up its application into four parts, with different people reviewing the separated parts. The four parts of the reviewing process are general, technical, environmental and financial. The report said staff will sometimes delay completing application reviews if parts of the review are not done or if they suspect any potential changes to the project, even if the application is complete. This defeats the purpose of breaking the application up into four parts. Additionally, several of the projects reviewed by the auditor were delayed because staff had to review the applications more than once.

The auditor’s report said the State Water Board needs to overhaul and simplify this funding process.

“While the State Water Board has a responsibility to ensure that drinking water funds are spent appropriately, it also has a responsibility to ensure that all Californians have access to safe drinking water,” the report stated, “and its process is not adequately balancing those two needs.”

Water Board’s Response

In his response to the audit, Joe Karkoski, deputy director for the State Water Board’s Division of Financial Assistance, said the number of failing water systems applying for funding has risen due to the outreach efforts made by the water agency. Just 49 projects were eligible for funding through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund in fiscal year 2014-15 compared with 250 in 2019-20. 

“The Board does not prevent submission of applications – even when our funding capacity and staff capacity to process applications are exceeded – because projects can be queued and ready to move forward once capacity is available,” Karkosiki wrote. “We have found that the openness of our application process facilitates higher application rates and, ultimately, more funded projects.”

Karkoski also pointed out delays in two of the last five years in question were caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, such as cost increases related to inflation and/or supply chain problems that require amending agreements to increase budgets; consultants or water systems with key staff out of the office due to COVID-19 health impacts; statewide or county restrictions that limit travel or in-person meetings for required site visits. Yet, even during the global pandemic, Karkoski stated the State Water Board has provided construction funding for 90, mostly small disadvantaged communities, completed 73 consolidations of water systems, sent over 2,000 letters informing water systems of consolidation opportunities, appointed administrators to run 13 water systems, held 19 water partnership workshops on consolidation, held 55 meetings with tribal leaders and 12 meetings with its Safe and Affordable Funding for Equity and Resilience (SAFER) Program Advisory Group. 

Since being signed by the Governor in July 2019, the State Water Board said the SAFER program, which provides $130 million annually over 10 years, has reduced the population impacted by failing water systems from 1.6 million people to 934,000 – a 40 % reduction in the first three years of a 10-year program, provided $50 million in emergency and drought assistance to nearly 9,500 households and 150 water systems, increase funding to small, disadvantaged communities by 84%, and increase technical assistance to accelerate projects in more than 300 small communities. 

“The Board acknowledges that there are improvements that can be made, but respectfully requests an adjustment to the inaccurate title of the report,” Karkoski stated. “The Board has demonstrated its urgency by making substantial progress in its Safe and Affordable Funding for Equity and Resilience (SAFER) Program over the past three years to provide safe and affordable drinking water to the many Californians who previously lacked safe water.”

Possible Solution

To fix the failing water system, Hurtado introduced Senate Bill 1219 (SB 1219) on Feb. 17, which would eliminate the State Water Board and “revamp” a new water system.

“[The current water system] hasn’t been working, it’s not working,” Hurtado said. “And the auditor just points out to the fact that it’s not working.”

SB 1219 declares the current regulations being used to oversee the development and management of the state’s water resources are outdated, as they were established in an earlier era with different populations and problems. To ensure that the state has a more modernized set of water laws that apply to the 21st century, SB 1219 states it is important that the state reviews how state water resources are managed and identify any reforms deemed necessary.

The bill also acknowledges that since the establishment of governmental institutions, statutes and regulations overseeing the development and management of California’s water resources, there have been various changes. Some examples are population growth, climate change and most of the state’s water infrastructure being at or beyond its design life. The bill declares that the results from these changes display that governmental institutions, statutes and regulations overseeing the state’s water resources no longer properly serve California, if they ever did.

Hurtado said although the State Water Board has made progress and individuals on the board make an effort to resolve water issues, the overall issue with the agency is an institutional one. In accordance with SB 1219, she said the state has not adapted to the 21st century when it comes to managing its water systems. 

Not only that, but with climate change, extreme heat and less water availability, Hurtado said it can be difficult for the state to give immediate aid to communities like the Central Valley in a quick and efficient manner.

Hurtado said that although she received a lot of criticism for introducing SB 1219, the current system under the State Water Board is not working for people in the Central Valley.

“The people that I love, the people that I represent, have to deal with [this issue] as well,” Hurtado said. “And that was part of the reason for drafting SB 1219. There is urgency, there is no room for ‘it’s an insane idea.’ I think at this point, any insane idea is more rational than what has been the status quo.”

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