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Wednesday, May 29, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Audit: Nearly a million Californians lack access to safe drinking water

One expert blamed too many water agencies and too little funding and oversight.

(CN) — Nearly a million people living in California use water from a "failing water system," according to a state audit published Tuesday, exposing them to a range of negative long-term health outcomes including an increased risk of cancer and liver and kidney problems.

The California State Water Resources Control Board classifies 418 local water systems as "failing," meaning their water supply exceeds the maximum allowable contaminant levels for safe drinking water. More than 920,000 people rely on drinking water from those systems. Nearly 240 systems have been failing for three years or more.

An additional 432 water systems, serving more than 1 million people, are "at risk of failing."

"I don’t think it’s that big of a surprise," said Bruce Resnik, executive director of Los Angeles Waterkeeper. "There are way too many water agencies in California, and not enough funding, not enough oversight."

Water in California is disbursed through a decentralized patchwork of local agencies composed of roughly 7,400 "drinking water systems," some private, some public. 

The small city of Maywood in Los Angeles County, just over a square mile in size with about 25,000 residents, is served by three private local water agencies. 

According to the audit, Los Angeles County has its share of failing water agencies, but most fall within eight counties in the Central Valley. Two-thirds of all the failing water systems "were serving disadvantaged communities with a total of more than 775,000 residents."

The audit piled opprobrium on the water board, which doles out state and federal funding to help local water systems but "has not made processing applications a priority."

On average, it takes 17 months for the state to review applications and approve financing. The local water systems take nearly that long at 16 months on average to complete their applications for state funding due to the complexity of the applications and a "lack of timely communication" from the board.

In a comment attached to the end of the audit, the water board offered a partial defense of its own performance, pointing out that 1.6 million people drank from failing water systems in 2019 — meaning the board has reduced that number by 40% in just three years.

Greg Pierce, co-director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, said the agency deserves some amount of credit — after all, the audit is a result of its own accountability mechanism, and the number of failing water systems comes from its own data. He added that the problem of too many tiny water agencies is a common one across the country.

"Every state has way too many drinking water systems, compared to other utilities," said Pierce. "Water systems are fragmented."

"That’s part of what the state water board has been doing," Pierce added, "trying to consolidate these systems. It’s slow going. It takes a long time. And it's political."

California, like much of the Western United States, remains mired in a historic drought, placing more pressure on water systems at or near the breaking point.

The audit estimates it would cost nearly $10.3 billion over five years to bring all the state's water systems into compliance.

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Categories / Environment, Health, Regional

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