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Why California May Ban New Small Water Agencies

California Gov. Jerry Brown has until the end of the month to sign a bill on his desk that would ban the creation of new small water districts, which many feel pose health risks or provide unreliable water supply.

Written by Michael Levitin Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
On July 2, 2015, four generations of the Dunlap family look on as bottled water is delivered to their home in the community of Okieville on the outskirts of Tulare, Calif., where there is not a safe, reliable water supply.Gregory Bull, AP

California’s goal of ensuring universal access to safe drinking water, as mandated in the 2012 Human Right to Water Bill, will come a step closer to being met if Gov. Jerry Brown signs a new measure into law that halts the creation of new small, unsustainable ­– and in many cases dangerous – water districts in the state.

The bill, SB1263, passed through the state assembly and senate in August. It aims to guarantee the safety and reliability of drinking water statewide by encouraging new developments to tie into existing water districts rather than create their own. The measure would especially help low-income communities that cannot afford to pay for improved water quality, and could specifically impact Central Valley cities such as Merced, Bakersfield, Fresno and the rural regions around them that have seen innumerable small water agencies sprout up in recent decades to keep pace with population growth.

Currently, of the 7,600 water districts in California, between 150 and 400 of the smallest ones are delivering water that is either unsafe to drink – with high levels of arsenic, nitrate or chromium-6 – or unreliable in flow, oftentimes reaching populations with fewer than 200 water connections, and in some cases no more than a single school site.

“It’s just ludicrous,” said the bill’s author, State Sen. Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont), who chairs the Senate Environmental Quality Committee. “This bill attempts to say, ‘Enough with that.’ It allows the State Water [Resources Control] Board to come in and act like a backstop when a small system is proposed by a developer.”

Under the law, developers will “have to show that they’ve exhausted all possibilities of tying into existing water systems, then show they have the financial and technical ability to operate. This is the first step to say no more new water districts,” and to enforce consolidation with larger water districts that have proved they can deliver safe water, he said.

Part of the problem stems from California’s long-time failure to pass legislation regulating the use of groundwater, which has enabled anyone with money to drill a well at any place and at any time, regardless of the long-term viability or safety of the drinking source. Easy to access, inexpensive to deliver and simpler to treat than surface water due to its lack of bacteria, groundwater provided a solid development model for California over the decades.

But now, with drought on everyone’s mind and many communities’ water safety coming into question, legislators are setting a new bar for developers if they want their projects approved. SB1263 gives the State Water Resources Control Board the authority to deny permits for new water systems if there is a reasonable chance the newly created water district will fail to provide safe drinking water in the foreseeable future. It requires developers to compare costs between starting a new system and consolidating, or connecting, with an existing one, and to identify all proposed sources of water for new developments.

Furthermore, the bill would prohibit local agencies from issuing building permits for developments that lack their own access to water and need to haul it in from elsewhere. Sen. Wieckowski cited as an example 42,000 parcels currently slated for development in Los Angeles County – all of which are designed to use expensive, hauled-in drinking water. Under the bill, projects like these would be stopped in their tracks.

“It can happen anywhere, in Napa or Alameda County, when people come in and say, ‘We’re going to build 100 houses and we’re just going to create a new water district.’ We’re saying that we don’t want these itty-bitty water districts to be created,” he said.

Though the measure faced early opposition from the Association of California Water Agencies and the California Building Industry Association, both bodies ultimately conceded the fight. Gov. Brown has until the end of the month to sign the bill into law.

A safe drinking water study released last year by the State Water Board found that more than two-thirds of arsenic violations, and nearly 88 percent of nitrate violations, occurred in small water districts, forcing residents to pay high costs for water treatment or find replacement water. The vast majority of California’s water districts – 98 percent, according to the state water board’s measure – are doing their jobs properly. But even only 2 percent of districts violating water safety rules translates into unsafe conditions for thousands of people.

“It doesn’t matter how small a system is, [whether it’s serving] 1,500 or 3,000 people. At the end of the day, they’re delivering water to their community and there are greater efficiencies when you’re delivering through larger systems, and a greater margin of safety,” said George Kostyrko, the State Water Board’s communications director. “The challenge is daunting. A majority of water systems are meeting that challenge on a daily basis. But there’s that elusive 2 percent that are struggling to do that.”

The bill is receiving strong support from the environmental community, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and California League of Conservation Voters. According to Jennifer Clary, Clean Water Action’s water program manager, economics are often the determining factor for communities seeking access not only to safe drinking water but to a tap that comes on reliably when you need it.

“California suburbs have grown and grown, in some cases around small neighborhoods with small systems, and many of those systems have only one or two wells. In this drought, thousands of wells have gone dry, and if your well goes dry, no one gets any water,” said Clary.

“A larger city has alternatives or the financial ability to dig a deeper well,” she added. But for the smaller districts looking at their bottom line, “even when state taxpayer dollars are available to help them take care of the problem, they still end up with these really high bills for operation and maintenance, and it can often run them off the rails.”

Legislation passed last year, under SB88, gave the state water board the authority to consolidate water districts in order to close the 2 percent gap. Now, officials say that stopping the proliferation of those small districts to begin with is an urgent and complementary goal. As Wieckowski puts it, the mission is “to fulfill our promise that everyone gets safe drinking water.”

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