Report: California failing to fund its water infrastructure

150 150 Matthew Grant Anson

(photo credit: Matthew Grant Anson)

How long was your shower this morning? Californians have been urged to manage their water usage with more prudence for years. So if you’ve been listening at all – particularly during the drought parching the state – you’ve most likely done at least something to save some water at one time or another.

But, a new report released this week by the Public Policy Institute of California titled Paying for Water in California shows a complex crisis taking place and that taking a shorter shower won’t save the day. More likely, the state will have to take some bold steps to smartly invest in its water system and make some convincing dents in its funding gaps to address the situation. The Economic Summit outlined eleven specific steps that will do just that—and lay the foundation for long-term water sustainability—in a February letter to state leaders.

Of course, we’ve been hearing about a water crisis in our state for years, but the PPIC report takes special care to point out that this portrayal paints our situation with too large a brush. “By some accounts, California’s water system is already in a deep crisis, with failing marks for essential infrastructure and with vast unmet spending needs,” the report says. “Yet this system is both large and multifaceted, and it is important to take a closer look to identify where the real problems lie.”

The real problem areas breakdown into five categories, and while each category impacts a specific group of citizens in the state based on where they live, the cost is one that is going to be shared by all Californians.

  • Safe drinking water for small, disadvantaged communities
  • Flood protection
  • Management of storm water and other polluted runoff
  • Aquatic ecosystem management
  • Integrated water management

80,000 to 160,000 Californians currently live in rural communities, and their reliance on groundwater puts them in a position where they need to “replace wells or install costly wellhead treatments to remove harmful chemicals” like arsenic or nitrate. To address this, these communities need $30 to $160 million more dollars per year.

On the flood protection front – a front experienced by many as 25 percent of California’s population lives in a floodplain – investing an additional $800 million to $1 billion is needed in costly infrastructure upgrades.

The increasingly stringent regulations on pollution means agencies need $500 to $800 million more per year to meet the requirement, while $400 to $700 million is needed to help offset damage to habitat for endangered species.

Finally, an additional $200 to $300 million is needed to help integrate water management approaches to improve how cost effective the system is. This integration entails “the coordinated management of multiple water system functions at once,” such as water supply, quality, flood protection, and ecosystem management.

Now that we have a clearer understanding of “what” needs to be paid for, attention can turn to “how” to pay for it. The PPIC paper prescribes a more diverse, robust strategy that shifts responsibility away from the state and local general funds and toward dedicated, state, regional, and local fees and taxes. General obligation bonds just won’t be able to fill these gaps in the long-term.

The Infrastructure Action Team of the California Economic Summit is working on advancing long-view strategies for projects, such as tapping into appropriate revenue sources by increasing the use of user fees (and everyone uses water) and assessments. Additionally, the state could consider reducing the vote threshold requirement for local taxes that are dedicated to infrastructure, something the PPIC report recommends as an option to better raise funds for flood protection.

The future of our state and meeting the water demands of the economy here–not just your shower length–depends on making smarter investments in our water infrastructure.


Matthew Grant Anson

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