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Study Finds Two Groups Hardest Hit by California’s Drought

A new Pacific Institute study is the first statewide effort to explore the impact of the California drought on vulnerable communities. Laura Feinstein says the results indicate neglect of low-income residents and subsistence fishing.

Written by Matt Weiser Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
Volunteers appeal for water donations on Olive Street in Porterville, Calif., on Sept. 6, 2014. Several locals started their own water challenges to help East Porterville area residents whose well went dry. A new study by the Pacific Institute found that small water systems were more vulnerable to problems during the drought.Chieko Hara, Porterville Recorder via AP

Throughout California’s severe drought, small communities suffered the most. Very small rural towns and even smaller neighborhood water systems were more likely to run out of water, and least able to solve those problems on their own.

In a new study the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based think-tank, explored these problems to understand how such disadvantaged communities ended up with water problems, and to recommend solutions. These are water systems with as few as 15 service connections or 25 year-round customers. In other cases, they were so-called “nonpublic” water systems, meaning they are so small that they are not even required to be regulated by the state, and usually serve a few homes from a central well or stream diversion.

The study, “Drought and Equity in California,” is billed as the first statewide look at the drought’s effect on vulnerable communities. As such, it also looks at the impact of drought on salmon fishing, both commercial and tribal, which faced their own unique challenges caused by drought. Water policies and government structures don’t necessarily serve them well. And because of salmon life cycles, the consequences for subsistence fishing may not be known for years.

Water Deeply recently spoke with lead author Laura Feinstein to learn more about the study. Feinstein holds a PhD in ecology and is a senior research associate at the Pacific Institute.

Water Deeply: What similarities did you find in the water systems that had problems?

Laura Feinstein: The smaller water systems do seem to be more vulnerable than the bigger ones. There are multiple reasons for that. They have lower capacity to diversify their water sources. They may be rural and, therefore, more geographically isolated from other systems that they could interlink with to get a backup supply. A lot of them are in rural areas that rely exclusively on groundwater.

And they aren’t required to have drought contingency plans by the state water board, which is one of our big recommendations. These smaller systems should be filing drought contingency plans along with the bigger systems.

Then there are the nonpublic water systems. These are really small. They’re so small they don’t even get regulated by the state water board. And there are a few different categories within that, too. There’s the state small systems, and even smaller than that are the local systems. Then there’s the private household wells and stream diversions.

Water Deeply: What has been done already to help these communities?

Feinstein: There’s been quite a bit of money and effort put into assistance for people who have had their supplies impacted. In Tulare County, for example, people who reported household shortages could get tanks of water set up outside their homes to use for cooking and showering. Then they could also get bottled water delivered, for free, to drink. It was tremendously expensive – I think it was around $400,000 a month to supply people with water.

That was good, but that’s not a long-term solution. And that is what, I think, is lacking and what we need to start thinking about for the future. We need to start thinking of ways to predict what areas will have shortages and ways to prevent that from happening. That’s one of the things we recommend, is to start doing some modeling about what areas are vulnerable to water supply shortages.

Water Deeply: What problems did you find with water pricing?

Feinstein: We know that a lot of people are paying a big proportion of their income for their water bill. A surprisingly large number of people are paying 4–5 percent and more of their income for water, which is just unaffordable for low-income families. It puts people in a position where they have to choose between paying their water and paying for food and other necessities.

We tried to drill down specifically into this issue of drought charges. We took a look at how drought surcharges and fees and penalties affect the price of water for people during the drought. The utilities, when there’s a drought, they have to raise prices because often their cost goes up and they have to spread their fixed costs across a smaller amount of water sold. But there are different ways utilities can approach drought charges.

We consider the most equitable way is just to increase prices for inefficient uses of water. But that’s not what most utilities did. Most raised prices for everyone. Low-income users usually are relatively low water users, and they also saw the price of water go up for them. And the price is going up not just for watering a lawn or filling a swimming pool, but to wash their dishes or take a shower – things they can’t stop doing.

Water Deeply: You call for increased oversight of new private wells. How?

Feinstein: Right now, especially in the southern San Joaquin Valley, we have a problem of groundwater overdraft. Groundwater levels are dropping over the long term and it means shallower wells are running dry. And yet there are no restrictions on drilling permits for new water wells. So you can end up in a scenario where the people who can afford to drill deeper wells get the water, and the people who can’t don’t have water.

So we’re calling for more oversight: Before a new permit for a well is approved, the county or some other entity must look to see whether there’s enough water to support a new well or whether it could potentially limit supply for neighboring wells.

Often, the farmers have the capital to drill a well. A new individual domestic drinking water well in the San Joaquin Valley cost between $25,000 and $35,000 in 2016 – half or more of a typical household’s income in the areas with many dry wells. So that’s out of reach for your typical family in a disadvantaged area. But it’s not out of reach for a reasonable-size farm.

Water Deeply: Will the state’s new Sustainable Groundwater Management Act help with these situations?

Feinstein: Eventually, but it’s a pretty long ways away. The preliminary plans go into effect in 2020, but SGMA doesn’t fully go into effect until a number of years after. So we think this situation is dire enough – we have thousands of people without running water – that the counties that are well-permitting agencies should be doing something sooner than that.

Water Deeply: You also studied effects on people who rely on salmon for their livelihoods. What did you find?

Thomas Joseph of Hoopa Valley joins about 30 mostly tribal demonstrators outside the U.S. courthouse in downtown Fresno in August 2013 to protest water diversions from the Trinity River, which can harm migrating salmon. Some tribes have had to go without salmon for their fall ceremonies due to shortages caused by the drought. (Craig Kohlruss, Fresno Bee via AP)

Feinstein: In the big picture, commercial fishermen are seeing a long-term downward trend in the amount of fish they catch every year. Drought is something that exacerbates the problem. So when there’s a drought, the flows in rivers get extremely low, the temperatures get higher and salmon have a really poor reproductive year. That means two to five years later, when it’s time to catch those fish as mature adults, there just aren’t that many there.

We also talked to tribal fishermen who told us they didn’t have a single salmon for their fall ceremonies, and so they had to use chicken instead. It is depressing, because these are people who have been relying on fish for millennia.

Water Deeply: What solutions did you come up with for these salmon impacts?

Feinstein: Most of the regulations to protect salmon during drought are about protecting endangered salmon runs.

So we recommend that water managers think bigger picture, not just about the needs of the endangered fish but also take into account the commercial runs.

We also recommend that there need to be better mechanisms for tribal engagement and tribal input. One big problem in particular is that only two tribes in the whole state have federally recognized fishing rights. But many more tribes traditionally relied on salmon and don’t have any rights to fish them anymore.

We need to get in-stream flow standards, and we need to protect them. We can’t just take all the water for human uses when we have a low precipitation year. We need to take into account the amount of water that’s necessary to allow fish populations to survive these really dry years.

Water Deeply: Were tribes that depend on salmon adequately considered in the state’s drought response?

Feinstein: The governor did include tribal liaisons in his drought task force. So they were considered and included to an extent. I’m guessing, if you talk to the tribes themselves though, they would say they weren’t considered enough. The state has made a lot of progress in trying to increase communication with the tribes, so I want to give them credit for that. But it is a long haul.

There can always be more work done to take tribes into account. They just aren’t getting the same quality of public services that we get in the rest of the state. There’s still a really surprising number of tribal families that live without indoor plumbing, that don’t have reliable or safe drinking water supplies.

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