Streamlining California’s approach to clean drinking water

150 150 Niki Woodard

All Californians should have access to clean drinking water. Agreed? 

Why, even today, Assemblymember Luis Alejo (D-Salinas) and others are holding a press conference on the north steps of the State Capitol at 1:30 pm to discuss this very issue and the $40 billion California will need to spend over the next two decades to ensure access to safe drinking water for all.

As a matter of policy, the state of California only recently defined its stance. In September 2012, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law AB 685, also known as the Human Right to Water Bill.

Going from policy to reality, however, will be no small feat. Currently, some 250,000 Californians in the San Joaquin and Salinas Valleys have nitrate contamination issues, according to a study released by UC Davis last spring. Compounding the problem, these communities are some of the poorest in our state. Communities in Los Angeles and the Imperial Valley are also affected.

Assemblymember Henry T. Perea (D-Fresno) has proposed three pieces of legislation that would work in tandem to help deliver a reality where all Californians have clean, safe, affordable water flowing from their faucets.

All three of these bills, according to Assemblymember Perea, are trying to “make government more capable.”

Streamlining Oversight

California’s water funding programs and regulatory authority are dispersed among several State government agencies.

AB 145 would consolidate the state’s oversight of drinking water by moving the Division of Drinking Water and Environmental Management from the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) to the State Water Resources Control Board (Water Board), under a new name—the Division of Drinking Water Quality.

“AB 145 would lead to more coordination and less duplication by consolidating funding programs for [water] source protection and treatment,” said Assemblymember Perea.

The effort would not only generate efficiencies, but change the approach the state takes to addressing its water quality problems.

According to Assemblymember Perea, there are two approaches to solving California’s water issues—the long term and short term.

“Addressing contamination before the contaminants reach aquifers is a long-term investment in our State’s future, saving communities money not needed [to be spent] on drinking water treatment,” said the Assemblymember.

With the number of contaminated wells on the rise, the long-term approach of prevention is fundamentally an environmental issue. That’s one of the reasons the Assemblymember proposes shifting all drinking water oversight to the Water Board, which is part of the California Environmental Protection Agency.

“A key goal of this legislation is to have one agency handling the entire hydrological cycle,” said Assemblymember Perea.

Wastewater Treatment

The Fresno Assemblymember has also introduced AB 30, which approaches the prevention of groundwater contamination from a different angle: treating wastewater.

The bill would make permanent the Small Community Wastewater Grant (SCWG), a program that funds water treatment projects in small disadvantaged communities. The Fund is currently set to sunset in 2014.

“AB 30 is a preventative measure to prevent future groundwater contamination,” said Perea.

To date, the SCWG Fund has generated $16.4 million through loan fees collected by the Water Board since 2008. The Fund has distributed or allocated $7.3 million to seven projects in five counties, with three projects in the San Joaquin Valley.

The Water Board estimates that the statewide need for funding is in excess of $850 million.

According to Assemblymember Perea, this grant program is important because small, disadvantaged communities generally can’t afford loans to construct or repair their wastewater treatment systems. 

Regional Solutions in Disadvantaged Communities

AB 115 is the third piece of legislation proposed by Assemblymember Perea to increase government efficiency and help ensure a clean supply of drinking water in California. The bill would allow small disadvantaged communities to consolidate their efforts in finding long-term, regional solutions to their contaminated drinking water problems.

Water treatment facilities are very expensive. Many of the small, rural communities suffering from contaminated drinking water don’t have the resources to operate and maintain such facilities. In fact, several facilities have been abandoned over the years.

In the current system, regionalization of such water treatment projects has been virtually disincentivized by bureaucratic hurdles. Multi-community projects must maneuver through many layers of compliance that are costly and can take several years to complete.

AB 115 would authorize the CDPH to fund multi-community water system projects as a single applicant, rather than as separate entities. The bill, according to Assemblymember Perea, creates “an easier funding process for consolidation of water systems, saving communities’ planning resources.” 

And all of this gets California closer to achieving a reality where everyone has access to safe, clean, affordable water all while increasing the efficiency in how the government goes about achieving that goal.


Niki Woodard

All stories by: Niki Woodard