Benedicto Cazares does not turn on his tap. He and his neighbors of East Orosi, an unincorporated community of about 1,000 people in the San Joaquin Valley, have been dealing with unsafe levels of nitrates in their water supply for years — and paying for it.
“We had to keep paying the bill as if it was clean water,” Cazares said, speaking through a translator. He now receives free deliveries of 5-gallon jugs of bottled water every two weeks. Those jugs are the family’s sole source of water for their household. Some weeks, especially when it’s hot, they run out and have to buy bottled water to make up the difference.
Cazares is one of about one million Californians who lack access to safe and affordable drinking water. In 2019, California took a big step towards tackling that problem. A first-of-its kind law set up a new fund and program to improve access to safe and affordable drinking water in communities like East Orosi.
Nearly a year and a half after the program began, California has taken reassuring first steps to secure safe and affordable drinking water for all. But according to a new report from the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office, the road ahead is long — and expensive.
“Much work remains to be accomplished in order to achieve the state’s goal of ensuring all Californians have access to safe and affordable drinking water,” the reports authors wrote.
In the interim, Cazares said he is happy to see the new money and resources dedicated to solving the problem. But he sees a long road ahead.
He works with the AGUA Coalition, a grassroots group in the San Joaquin Valley advocating for safe drinking water. The first time the group traveled to Sacramento to talk about the issues his community faces, he said the lawmakers they spoke to asked them where East Orosi was.
“It gives me hope that we can resolve the problem, but if a water district doesn’t want to take advantage of that, then we’re still stuck in the same place,” Cazares said.
Acknowledging the Problem
In 2019, following the Trump administration’s roll back of multiple Obama-era environmental laws, including the Clean Water Act, California enacted a law that allocated $130 million every year into a safe drinking water fund for 10 years.
The money comes with certain constraints, but fewer than other state and federal grant programs. The law also created the program Safe and Affordable Funding for Equity and Resilience (SAFER), which, unlike other water quality programs in California and elsewhere, has centered and prioritized the needs of people living in disadvantaged communities that feel the most acute impacts of unsafe drinking water.
Now, community members serve on an advisory board alongside local politicians and advocates, and the program explicitly talks about its environmental justice goals.
“You see a disproportionate number of small communities, small community water systems that are not meeting safe drinking water standards,” said Ellen Hanak, the director of the Water Policy Center at the Public Policy Institute of California.
Many of them rely on small water systems that serve just a handful of customers, like the one in East Orosi. Others have private wells attached to their homes.
Dangerous chemicals like arsenic and nitrates contaminate many people’s drinking water, while compounds like 1,2,3-TCP pollute the water of others. The vast majority of people drinking water with unsafe levels of toxic chemicals are low-income people of color.
Only 17 counties in California have public water systems that fully comply with state and federal drinking water standards, according to data from the state water board. Those regulations determine what level of a chemical or contaminant that is safe to drink.
Heavily agricultural counties in the Central Valley like San Joaquin, Kern and San Benito, had some of the highest rates of unsafe tap water in people’s homes, the LAO report states. Water treatment can be extremely expensive, and many smaller systems simply don’t have the resources to implement the necessary infrastructure or monitoring.
“The cost can just be exorbitant. And that's going to be especially true in very small communities,” Hanak said.
Working Towards Solutions
Unsafe drinking water is not a new problem in California, but the state has dedicated more resources and work towards building comprehensive solutions to the problem head on in recent years.
In 2012, California became the first state in the country to write in its constitution that it is human right to have safe drinking water. In 2019, after years of organizing and advocating from community-members, advocates and experts, the legislature passed Senate Bill 200, which established the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund and SAFER program.
“The intent is to fill the gaps … and to kind of unlock those funding sources for those communities that haven't been able to access it,” said Laurel Firestone, who serves on the State Water Resources Control Board.
The 2019-2020 fiscal year was the first round of funding for the program, and the water board focused most of its efforts on getting water systems that are currently failing to provide safe drinking water resources to apply for grant funding, the LAO report found. The water board is working with several partners to analyze existing data to get a better sense of the scope of the problem.
State funds beyond the SAFER program can also be used to support improving water quality, but some worry the level of investment and scope of the problem appear somewhat mismatched.
“When we look at just the capital costs of what's needed, that's somewhat of a drop in the bucket,” Firestone said of the $130 million fund. There are other statewide funding sources to draw on, and Firestone said she hopes the new money could make it easier for money-strapped, small water systems to access those funds, too.
“At the end of the day, we don't think that $130 million a year is going to be adequate to cover the cost of all of all of the challenges in the state,” said Morgan Shimabuku, a research associate with the Pacific Institute. Shimabuku is working with the state water board to assess the full extent of California’s water quality problem, which can’t be done without ensuring people can afford it.
“They're really two sides of the same coin in a lot of ways,” she said. “Safe water is not free.”
On this, Shimabuku and Firestone agree: Consolidating water systems could make water more safe and affordable. But doing so isn’t cheap and takes time.
Cazares, the East Orosi resident without clean water at home, said he hopes to see his community connect its water system to neighboring Orosi, where the water is clean.
Unlike other sources of funding, this new money also comes with the kind of administrative and engineering help that many systems serving disadvantaged communities lack. The support on multiple levels can help ease the financial burden of ensuring and monitoring safe water, without passing the cost off on consumers who may not be able to afford it.
The affordability issue is top of mind for Firestone, who warns that as families and water providers struggle with the financial strain of a pandemic the problem could get worse.
“I think as this economic crisis continues, if we don't find a way of supporting financial needs,” she began, “we’re going to see a lot more systems being unable to provide safe drinking water.”