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By Nathaniel Logar, Special to CALmatters

In his first actions as governor, Gavin Newsom has focused on drinking water, in particular fulfilling the state’s promise, enshrined as a human right in a 2012 law, to provide safe and affordable water to all Californians.

In his January budget address, and a surprise bus trip with all 11 cabinet members to Monterey Park Tract, a community of 240 individuals in Stanislaus County, the governor emphasized the challenges many Californians still face with high bills for water from contaminated sources.

This past week, he signed legislation in Parlier to provide $20 million for clean water.

Newsom’s proposed budget includes a new tax that would provide funding for safe drinking water in disadvantaged communities.

Whether Newsom is successful, the repeated proposal for such a tax highlights the need for new and creative ideas on how to manage and fund water systems in California, where the problem of failing or mismanaged systems is a significant one.

In his visit to Monterey Park Tract, the governor was correct to focus on small water systems. Systems with the smallest number of customers face the greatest challenges in providing cheap, drinkable tap water.

This is as true in the state’s urban centers as it is in rural communities, and as true in L.A County as it is in Stanislaus County.

The majority of L.A. County water systems serve fewer than 10,000 customers. Taken together, small water systems reach more than 250,000 L.A. County residents.

As my co-authors and I detail in a new UCLA Law report, the two greatest challenges these systems face are contaminated groundwater sources and underfunding.

Across L.A. County, more than 900,000 people depend on groundwater that has been contaminated by industrial pollutants, agricultural products, or naturally occurring elements before it is treated.

This is a problem for large providers, but they have easier access to capital for treatment infrastructure and can tap surface water sources. The majority of the smallest systems are wholly reliant on groundwater.

These systems either must pay the high costs for treating contaminated groundwater or import water at almost double the price of treated groundwater and pass those costs on to overburdened ratepayers.

With small numbers of ratepayers, small water systems often do not benefit from the economies of scale available to large systems like Los Angeles Department of Water & Power. As a result, infrastructure costs can be three times higher per person for small systems than for large systems.

In low-income communities, small water systems are often unable to offer rate-assistance programs. Small systems often have fewer paid staff to maintain operations and less standby equipment to manage emergencies. The net result is that many small water systems’ ratepayers get lower quality service despite high bills.

In 2014, voters approved Proposition 1, a $7.1 billion bond for water improvements. Some of that money has funded projects that benefit L.A. County small water systems in communities such as Maywood and Cudahy.

Yet many small systems have trouble accessing money for ongoing operations and maintenance, for which funding is often unavailable.

The state should take several steps to strengthen small water systems’ ability to provide clean, affordable water to customers:

  • First, the state should improve data collection on the water quality as well as water pricing and customer income levels in small water systems. Better data will make it easier to assess the magnitude of water quality risk, and therefore easier to develop solutions.
  • The State Water Board should make greater use of its authority for water system consolidations, in which struggling water systems can be combined with more successful ones. To date, only one L.A. County consolidation has occurred in the past forty years, a shockingly low number given the potential benefits and the number of small systems in the county. The Legislature has authorized the Water Board to mandate consolidations and should grant the Water Board even greater authority and resources to support consolidation.
  • The state must expand funding for small water system operations and maintenance, infrastructural improvements, and disaster planning. More funding could come from Gov. Newsom’s proposed tax, or other means. Given the limited capacity of small systems, the funding must be accessible and the application process user-friendly.

To be clear, most small water systems in L.A. County—and statewide—provide safe and affordable drinking water. The problem is that some do not. If we take the human right to water seriously, the place to start is with small water systems.

Nathaniel Logar is an Emmett/Frankel Fellow in Environmental Law and Policy at UCLA School of Law’s Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, [email protected]. He wrote a commentary for CALmatters.