1 million Californians lack safe drinking water

Your guide to California policy and politics
Emily Hoeven BY Emily Hoeven July 27, 2022
Presented by Earthjustice, Dairy Cares, Climate-Smart Agricultural Partnership and Southern California Gas Company

1 million Californians lack safe drinking water

Under state law, every Californian has the right to safe, clean, affordable and accessible water — but a blistering audit released Tuesday shows just how far the state is from turning that promise into reality.

As CalMatters water reporter Rachel Becker and I write, Acting State Auditor Michael Tilden slammed regulators at the State Water Resources Control Board for what he characterized as their “lack of urgency to provide needed assistance to failing water systems,” even as the state funnels hundreds of millions of dollars into drinking water projects.

Among the audit’s key findings:

  • More than 920,000 people face an increased risk of cancer and liver and kidney problems because they get drinking water from one of the more than 370 systems that didn’t meet water quality standards as of December 2021. More than 150 of those systems have failed to meet those standards for at least five years, and an additional 432 systems serving more than 1 million people are currently at risk of failing. (The Golden State has roughly 7,400 drinking water systems, according to the report.)
  • More than two-thirds of the failing water systems are located in low-income, disadvantaged communities, primarily in eight Central Valley counties, San Bernardino County, and Imperial County — forcing residents who can least afford it to “purchase more expensive bottled water for drinking and cooking purposes.”
  • Although the state water board has funding available to help these systems improve their water quality, it took an average of 33 months in 2021 for systems to apply for and the board to award that money — nearly double the 17-month average in 2017. (Tilden acknowledged the delays are partly due to a change in state law prompting the state water board to work with “smaller, potentially less sophisticated” water systems. But he noted that surveys of water systems also suggest the board’s “cumbersome” application process is a factor: One respondent described it as “a nightmare,” saying “no one … can decipher what is required.”)

Making matters worse, “California is in the midst of a historic drought, which will only increase the strain on many struggling water systems,” Tilden wrote. “As their water quality worsens, or their water dries up altogether, struggling water systems will urgently need funding and solutions from the State Water Board. Any delays will expose even more Californians to unsafe drinking water.”

Among Tilden’s recommendations to the water board were that it trim unnecessary documents and steps from its application process and develop a way to fast-track projects deemed especially urgent.

In a letter to the auditor’s office, water board executive director Eileen Sobeck acknowledged there was room for improvement, but pushed back against the accusation that the board showed a lack of urgency in helping failing water systems. 

Since 2019, she said, the board 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. This means that 650,000 Californians in 120 communities now have access to safe drinking water that they did not have three years ago.” 

But state Sen. Melissa Hurtado, a Hanford Democrat, suggested the water board’s progress isn’t good enough.

  • Hurtado: “Earlier this year, I called for the State Water Board to be abolished and revamped, but it is clear that the situation is only getting worse. The State Water Board is an antiquated governing body with no oversight, and it appears incapable of addressing our urgent water situation. We should declare an emergency situation and provide all the funding and resources necessary to urgently address our faulty water systems.”

The coronavirus bottom line: As of Monday, California had 9,871,930 confirmed cases (+0.7% from previous day) and 92,595 deaths (+0.1% from previous day), according to state data now updated just twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.

California has administered 78,476,295 vaccine doses, and 71.6% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.


1 Draft voter guide is here

The proposed front cover of the 2022 voter booklet. Image courtesy of California Secretary of State
The proposed front cover of the November 2022 statewide voter information guide. Image courtesy of California Secretary of State

Californians have until Aug. 15 to inspect a draft of the statewide voter guide for the Nov. 8 general election after it was published Tuesday by Secretary of State Shirley Weber. What is there to inspect, you may ask? Well, the titles and summaries of the seven initiatives on the ballot are sure to draw a lot of attention, as they can prove instrumental in shaping voters’ understanding of what a “yes” or “no” vote actually means. Adding fuel to the fire, California tasks the state attorney general — a partisan, elected official — with writing those titles and descriptions, unlike some other states that assign the duty to the secretary of state or an election board. In 2020, then-Attorney General Xavier Becerra was sued six times for the way he labeled and summarized some of the year’s most contentious ballot measures — a modern record.

Here’s a look at some interesting takeaways from the draft voter guide:

  • Assemblymember Jim Patterson, a Fresno Republican, was one of the three signatories of the argument against Proposition 1, which would enshrine the right to abortion and contraception in California’s constitution.
  • Michael Genest, who led the Department of Finance under then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, signed the argument against Prop. 31, on which a “yes” vote would mean keeping in place California’s flavored tobacco ban.
  • Corporations spending millions of dollars to support or oppose initiatives are conspicuously absent from the official arguments. For example, three kidney dialysis patients signed the argument opposing Prop. 29, which would slap more regulations on clinics, rather than the dialysis companies actually funding the opposition campaign. And Lyft was not among the signatories of the argument in favor of Prop. 30, which would raise taxes on millionaires to find an array of climate programs, despite spending millions to qualify it for the ballot. Steven Maviglio, a consultant working for the Yes on 30 campaign, asserted on Twitter, “You’ll noice the billionaires opposing #Prop30 don’t appear on the NO side argument either.”
  • No argument was submitted in opposition to Prop. 28, which would funnel more state money into arts and music education for public school students.
  • As if the battle between two dueling initiatives (Props. 26 and 27) to legalize sports betting wasn’t already complicated enough, one of the arguments invokes the well-being of horses at California’s horse racetracks.

2 Los Angeles County may avoid mask mandate

Masked and unmasked commuters are seen at a Metro station in Los Angeles on July 13, 2022. Photo by Jae C. Hong, AP Photo
Masked and unmasked commuters are seen at a Metro station in Los Angeles on July 13, 2022. Photo by Jae C. Hong, AP Photo

California’s coronavirus numbers may be improving enough to pull Los Angeles County back from the brink of a universal indoor mask mandate health officers had been poised to reinstate Friday. The state’s seven-day test positivity rate was 15% as of Monday, a significant improvement from the 16.7% notched late last week. Although Los Angeles is among the 50 California counties currently categorized by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as having high levels of COVID community transmission — at which point it recommends universal masking in indoor public spaces — the county could exit that category Thursday if positive trends continue, Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said Tuesday.

The possibility of a renewed mask mandate had been met with frustration by some business groups and local leaders, including County Supervisor Kathryn Barger. “I believe masking mandates are polarizing and are unenforceable,” she wrote in an open letter Monday. “I also believe we have not fully examined nor understand the costs associated with imposing masking mandates among our children and youth.” Meanwhile, the city of Beverly Hills, which is exploring forming its own health department, said it would not enforce the county’s mask mandate.

Others supported the potential mandate, noting that COVID infections continue to pose risks even for those who are vaccinated and boosted. In early July, an estimated 1 in 14 adults in California had current symptoms of long COVID — a mysterious, debilitating and difficult-to-diagnose compilation of post-infection problems — and about 1 in 8 reported having ever experienced them, according to U.S. Census Bureau data analyzed by the CDC.

3 A confusing jumble of housing rules

A rental sign in front of an apartment complex in central Fresno on June 28, 2022. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local
A rental sign in front of an apartment complex in central Fresno on June 28, 2022. Photo by Larry Valenzuela, CalMatters/CatchLight Local

It’s a confusing time for California tenants and landlords. Statewide eviction protections expired after more than two years on June 30, but the state’s pandemic rent relief program as of July 13 had yet to review more than 45,000 applications, according to a new analysis from the National Equity Atlas, Housing NOW! and the Western Center on Law & Poverty. (In a sign of the myriad challenges the program has faced, a superior court judge on July 8 ordered California’s housing department to stop denying people’s rent relief applications and temporarily suspend rejections issued within the prior 30 days.) Meanwhile, landlords will be allowed to bump up rents on some apartments by as much as 10% starting Aug. 1, as CalMatters’ Manuela Tobias and the Los Angeles Times’ Liam Dillon explain on the latest episode of “Gimme Shelter: The California Housing Crisis Podcast.” At the same time, some cities have enacted local protections banning evictions over non-payment of rent.

  • Ari Chazanas, a landlord who manages about 1,000 apartments across Los Angeles, told Manuela and Liam: “It felt like you almost needed to take a college course breaking down and analyzing what you can do and what you can’t do, and it’s still confusing for the most part.”

CalMatters Commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: California’s economic recovery is slowing down, and there may be a recession on the horizon.

How California can fight fire with prescribed fire: While the state has poured resources into careers in fire suppression, no such financial investment exists for careers in prescribed fire. That needs to change, argues Tom Gardali, CEO of Audubon Canyon Ranch.


Other things worth your time

Some stories may require a subscription to read

San Francisco monkeypox vaccine clinic closes again due to lack of shots. // SFGATE

Pelosi in a bind as California leaders object to federal privacy bill. // Washington Post

Expanded police access to live surveillance could begin as one-year trial in San Francisco. // San Francisco Standard

Hundreds of San Francisco SRO workers to strike in call for higher wages. // San Francisco Chronicle

Senior housing labeled as affordable excludes many seniors. // San Francisco Examiner

Bay Area home prices see largest May-to-June drop on record. // Mercury News

Should single-family homes lose free trash pickup? San Diego voters will decide. // San Diego Union-Tribune

How a skid row store faces the tensions in Black-Korean history — by discussing its bleakest chapters. // Los Angeles Times

San Francisco’s Asian community divided over whether school leader should resign over offensive comments. // San Francisco Standard

Editorial: The false promise of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s CARE courts. // Los Angeles Times

Jay-Z name not enough to save Sacramento cannabis delivery service. // Sacramento Bee

Staff shortages nix programming in San Francisco jails. // Mission Local

2 California inmates killed in separate prison attacks. // Associated Press

Fontana Unified superintendent resigns amid investigation into school police detective. // EdSource

Stockton Unified’s safety plans dated or out of compliance with state law, consultant says. // The Record

Deep divisions, further delay for California’s math guidelines. // EdSource

Millions of Californians lack the high-speed internet capacity needed to get a job. // Capital & Main

Can strawberry-picking robots save California’s growers? // Los Angeles Times

California’s worst drought on record spells trouble for classic green lawns. // Wall Street Journal

Drought: How one Orange County water district drilled down to become self-sustaining. // Orange County Register

How one California neighborhood is guarding against deadly heat. // Bloomberg

California militia helping Oak Fire evacuees creates furor in Mariposa. // Mercury News

How fancy new resorts in Napa’s Wine Country increase fire risk. // San Francisco Chronicle

California used to pay people to hunt mountain lions. Now we spend millions to protect them. // Los Angeles Times

See you tomorrow


Tips, insight or feedback? Email emily@calmatters.org.

Follow me on Twitter: @emily_hoeven

Subscribe to CalMatters newsletters here.

Follow CalMatters on Facebook and Twitter.

CalMatters is now available in Spanish on Twitter, Facebook and RSS.