California wildfires threaten water supply. Here’s how

By Marc Marcantonio, Special to CALMatters

In 2008, a fire swept through the Santa Ana Canyon in Orange County. The fire lasted 10 days and burned over 30,000 acres, leveling hundreds of buildings.

The fire was started by a car on the side of the freeway–a fluke which gave the fire its name, the Freeway Complex Fire.

Ten years later, while firefighters and communities are gearing up for another wildfire season, California’s lawmakers are grappling with tough questions over how to assign financial responsibility for wildfire damages. The Freeway Complex Fire holds important lessons for all.

Among the many victims of the fire was a public drinking water supplier that serves about 80,000 residents in Orange County, the Yorba Linda Water District, where I work as general manager.

Of the hundreds of structures damaged by the Freeway Complex Fire, one was the water district’s facilities needed to pump water through portions of the system.

After the fire, the water district was slapped with a lawsuit and ultimately had to pay a $69 million judgment. Even though the court determined that the Yorba Linda Water District didn’t ignite the fire or act inappropriately, the district was still held liable for fire damages because the fire incapacitated the pumps needed to push water to the fire hydrants in one neighborhood.

The Yorba Linda Water District and the people who depend on it got stuck with the bill because of an arcane legal standard unique to California. That standard allows public service providers, including drinking water suppliers, to be held liable for property damage, even when they haven’t done anything wrong.

This same legal standard–sometimes called “strict liability”–is now being used in lawsuits across California against other public drinking water suppliers when their facilities are affected by fires.  The case against the Yorba Linda Water District should serve as a cautionary tale.

Public drinking water suppliers’ financial stability is threatened if they are saddled with the cost of damage caused by fires they don’t start. And that could put the safety of our drinking water at risk.  

It also could hinder the ability of water suppliers to adapt to climate change and help the state achieve its greenhouse gas reduction goals. It could drain millions of dollars needed to maintain and upgrade California’s water infrastructure. And it could leave ratepayers and taxpayers on the hook for exorbitant costs and threaten workers’ jobs.

In the coming weeks, the Legislature will hold hearings addressing wildfire risk to the state. Lawmakers should not wait for one or more public water supplier to declare bankruptcy before addressing this significant issue.

The Legislature should implement reforms making it clear that public drinking water suppliers are not responsible for the damage from fires they do not start.

Marc Marcantonio is general manager of Yorba Linda Water District, [email protected]. He wrote this commentary for CALmatters.

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