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Drought Felt in Low-Income Bay Area Communities

The impact of the drought in rural California has been well documented, but urban areas are also feeling the effects – and low-income communities are especially hard hit, a new report finds.

Written by Tara Lohan Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
A photo taken with a fisheye lens shows the dried shore at San Pablo Reservoir Recreation Area in El Sobrante, Calif., on April 2, 2015. Many communities in the Bay Area have been hard hit by economic impacts from California's drought.Eric Risberg, AP

California’s drought, now in its fifth year, has grabbed headlines – many of them focused on the state’s mandatory conservation measure enacted last year or the impacts on the agricultural sector, said Heather Cooley, the water program director of the Pacific Institute, a global water think tank.

“Impacts on disadvantaged communities have received far less attention,” she said. “And the attention that there has been has focused on wells running dry in the San Joaquin Valley. There has really been less of a review about the drought and disadvantaged communities more broadly.”

That’s changed since the Pacific Institute teamed up with the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water and eight grassroots organizations to put together a community-based participatory research project on Drought and Equity in the San Francisco Bay Area. The research area covers the San Francisco Bay hydrologic region, which is 4,500 square miles (12,000 sq km) and includes San Francisco County and parts of Marin, Sonoma, Napa, Solano, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Contra Costa and Alameda counties.

The area, Cooley said, is an important case study because it contains a mix of small, rural water systems, and highly urbanized, large systems. These serve communities with racial, social and economic diversity.

While there are few documented cases of wells running dry in the Bay Area, the drought’s impacts have manifested in other ways. Margaret Gordon, co-director of West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, cited aging infrastructure and high prices for water as two of the biggest problems in her community and across the region.

“Old infrastructure and payment – it’s the same all over,” said Gordon. “From Sonoma to Bayview-Hunters Point to Richmond to East Oakland to West Oakland to Marin – it’s the same thing. The oldest parts of cities historically have been communities of color and there’s a lack of a real system that protects them and ensures they have good water.”

Affordability is an issue that’s been exacerbated by the drought, said Cooley – with water rates rising faster than inflation and some communities being hit by drought surcharges from water agencies. Research from the Public Policy Institute of California found that water bills have increased two to three times quicker than inflation in urban areas of the state between 2000 and 2010. “This was needed to cover some of the fixed costs associated with water service,” said Cooley. “But they can exacerbate affordability concerns for low-income households.”

Dan Johnson, a treatment plant operator, inspects a sediment pond at the Roseville Water Treatment Plant in Granite Bay, Calif., in July 2015. Due to reduced water use, Roseville is among the water agencies that have had to impose a “drought surcharge” in order to make up the lost revenue. (Rich Pedroncelli, AP)

Dan Johnson, a treatment plant operator, inspects a sediment pond at the Roseville Water Treatment Plant in Granite Bay, Calif., in July 2015. Due to reduced water use, Roseville is among the water agencies that have had to impose a “drought surcharge” in order to make up the lost revenue. (Rich Pedroncelli, AP)

Another concern is inequitable use of water. In general, low-income households use less water than those with higher incomes, which are more likely to have pools, larger lots and bigger lawns. For example, the report compares Hillsborough, where the median household income is $250,000 a year and per capita water use last year was 181 gallons (685 liters) a day, to East Palo Alto, less than 20 miles (32km) away, where median household income is $53,000 and per capita water use is 43 gallons (163 liters) a day.

“Higher levels of water use place additional burdens and costs on the water system and increase the likelihood of having to develop more expensive water supplies,” the report noted.

As some communities face diminished water supplies and need to augment water resources, an equity issue arises. “Who is driving the need for, the demand for those new supplies, who pays for it and how is it allocated?” asked Cooley.

There are other drought impacts on water systems and ratepayers, as well. In West Oakland, Gordon said that new developments are putting increased pressure on aging infrastructure, when hundreds or thousands of new connections are added to existing pipelines – making a bad problem even worse.

Drought can also lead to overpumping of aquifers (which can cause subsidence and decrease water quality) and increased costs for expensive upgrades to water treatment systems. Some communities reliant on water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta may be on the hook for future costs related to infrastructure and habitat restoration.

“The Bay Area, despite its wealth, is vulnerable, in many of the same ways, if not to the same degree, as other parts of the state that get a lot more attention – like much of the San Joaquin Valley and the Central Coast, where wells are running dry in mass numbers,” said Colin Bailey, executive director of the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water. “The Bay Area is not immune and the equity impacts of drought are felt statewide first and worst by low-income communities of color, but they have implications for our society as a whole.”

In rural areas the impacts of drought are most often the result of small water systems that are unable to serve a dispersed community with limited resources. In those cases, the entire community is impacted. But in more urban regions, like the Bay Area, “it’s really about pockets of communities that are struggling,” said Cooley. “The solutions are within our reach. There are programs we can implement to help households and we should be doing it. It isn’t just the drought, they are much broader and more long-term.”

The report outlined what an equitable response to drought would look like and grouped the solutions into six categories: fair and equitable water rates; billing practices that meet low-income household needs; low-income financial assistance programs; programs to reduce water use in low-income households; effective communication and outreach strategies; and stakeholder engagement in decision-making processes.

Gordon said that in her community of West Oakland, she’d like to see discussion of a new bond to address equity issues around water infrastructure and water-saving technologies, like gray-water systems, and help them become accessible and widespread.

Later this summer a summit will convene the area’s water suppliers with community leaders who worked on the report – which include representatives from Youth United for Community Action, West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, West County Toxics Coalition, North Richmond Shoreline Open Space Alliance, Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, Shore Up Marin, California Indian Environmental Alliance and Alviso Water Collaborative. There there will be an “opportunity to present their findings and find common cause,” said Bailey.

Research in the coming months will also broaden to encompass the drought impacts on equity statewide. “In some senses, the Bay Area was a primer for what is to come,” said Bailey. “We found that one area of California most widely assumed to not have impacts, in fact does, and the results of a statewide analysis will give rise to a pretty broad sense that no region is in any way immune from some dire consequences for low-income communities of color, which in some parts of the state is an overwhelming majority.”

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