By Emily Hoeven
Under state law, every Californian has the right to safe, clean, affordable and accessible water — but a blistering audit released Tuesday shows just how far the state is from turning that promise into reality.
As CalMatters water reporter Rachel Becker and I write, Acting State Auditor Michael Tilden slammed regulators at the State Water Resources Control Board for what he characterized as their “lack of urgency to provide needed assistance to failing water systems,” even as the state funnels hundreds of millions of dollars into drinking water projects.
Among the audit’s key findings:
- More than 920,000 people face an increased risk of cancer and liver and kidney problems because they get drinking water from one of the more than 370 systems that didn’t meet water quality standards as of December 2021. More than 150 of those systems have failed to meet those standards for at least five years, and an additional 432 systems serving more than 1 million people are currently at risk of failing. (The Golden State has roughly 7,400 drinking water systems, according to the report.)
- More than two-thirds of the failing water systems are located in low-income, disadvantaged communities, primarily in eight Central Valley counties, San Bernardino County, and Imperial County — forcing residents who can least afford it to “purchase more expensive bottled water for drinking and cooking purposes.”
- Although the state water board has funding available to help these systems improve their water quality, it took an average of 33 months in 2021 for systems to apply for and the board to award that money — nearly double the 17-month average in 2017. (Tilden acknowledged the delays are partly due to a change in state law prompting the state water board to work with “smaller, potentially less sophisticated” water systems. But he noted that surveys of water systems also suggest the board’s “cumbersome” application process is a factor: One respondent described it as “a nightmare,” saying “no one … can decipher what is required.”)
Making matters worse, “California is in the midst of a historic drought, which will only increase the strain on many struggling water systems,” Tilden wrote. “As their water quality worsens, or their water dries up altogether, struggling water systems will urgently need funding and solutions from the State Water Board. Any delays will expose even more Californians to unsafe drinking water.”
Among Tilden’s recommendations to the water board were that it trim unnecessary documents and steps from its application process and develop a way to fast-track projects deemed especially urgent.
In a letter to the auditor’s office, water board executive director Eileen Sobeck acknowledged there was room for improvement, but pushed back against the accusation that the board showed a lack of urgency in helping failing water systems.
Since 2019, she said, the board has “reduced the population impacted by failing water systems from 1.6 million people to 934,000 — a 40% reduction in the first three years of a 10-year program. This means that 650,000 Californians in 120 communities now have access to safe drinking water that they did not have three years ago.”
But state Sen. Melissa Hurtado, a Hanford Democrat, suggested the water board’s progress isn’t good enough.
- Hurtado: “Earlier this year, I called for the State Water Board to be abolished and revamped, but it is clear that the situation is only getting worse. The State Water Board is an antiquated governing body with no oversight, and it appears incapable of addressing our urgent water situation. We should declare an emergency situation and provide all the funding and resources necessary to urgently address our faulty water systems.”