Local Government
Drinking Water Quality: Perceptions and Challenges

Drinking Water Quality: Perceptions and Challenges

Originally posted at the Public Policy Institute of CA.
By David Kordus and Henry McCann.

Months after lead contamination in the drinking water of Flint, Michigan, gained national attention, the PPIC Statewide Survey asked if Californians think drinking water pollution is a more serious health threat in lower-income areas than in other parts of their regions. In the July survey, about 6 in 10 adults statewide said “yes,” including majorities across regions.

There is evidence to support this view. Contamination of drinking water continues to be a serious health risk for small water districts serving low-income customers, especially in rural parts of the state. Despite recent progress in building a stronger water safety net, this is a problem lacking a long-term policy solution.

As estimated in the PPIC Water Policy Center’s report Paying for Water, roughly 80,000 to 160,000 Californians live in small economically disadvantaged communities that struggle to provide safe drinking water on a consistent basis. A key part of this challenge is the dependence of many small rural water districts on groundwater that contains naturally occurring or man-made contaminants at levels unsafe for human consumption.

Cost is a key factor. Removing contaminants like arsenic or nitrate from groundwater requires large up-front expenditures, technical and managerial expertise, and the ability to cover long-term operational costs. In most water districts, these costs are borne by rate-paying customers. Small water districts serving low-income communities struggle to pay for this kind of ongoing drinking water treatment because they have higher costs per household than their much larger counterparts, and their customers can’t afford high rates.

In recent years, California has increased the amount of financial and technical assistance for improving access to safe drinking water in these communities. The state provides financial assistance through emergency spending (in response to the ongoing drought, for example), competitive grant-based awards from multiyear general obligation bonds such as Proposition 1, or low-interest loans and grants through the state revolving fund. But long-term solutions will require funding mechanisms that are more accessible, reliable, and sustainable. For example, the state General Fund or a statewide surcharge on water use could help solve this social equity issue. It will also be important to invest in solutions that are cost-effective and that communities can manage well over time. That’s an argument in favor of connecting these small systems to larger ones wherever feasible—something now under way in East Porterville and some other Central Valley communities.

The PPIC Statewide Survey finds that, while a majority of Californians see drinking water quality in lower-income areas as a serious health threat, there are wide differences among demographic and voter groups. Fewer than half of Republicans, whites, high-income Californians, or likely voters see this as a problem. On the subject of drought response, however, solid majorities across these groups (and 6 in 10 adults overall) say state and local governments are not doing enough. This eagerness for government action, coupled with policymakers’ willingness to address long-term water problems, may pave the way for solutions to drinking water contamination in vulnerable communities.

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