Originally posted at the Public Policy Institute of CA.
By Henry McCann and Ellen Hanak.

Governor Brown signed nearly 60 new bills this year that will influence how California goes about the business of managing water. Several of these new laws will expand and strengthen the water safety net for disadvantaged communities. A suite of bills signed in recent weeks will bring a much-needed assist for communities lacking reliable access to safe and affordable drinking water.

While the vast majority of residential water customers in California have access to safe drinking water, several hundred small communities still struggle to provide drinking water that meets basic health standards. In addition, the drought has resulted in more than 2,000 domestic wells across the state going dry and shortages in 100 small rural water systems. Small water districts serving low-income communities are not like their much larger counterparts—their rate bases are smaller, costs per household are higher, and their customers can’t afford high rates. In addition, these communities tend to have a shortage of managerial and technical expertise. These interrelated challenges constrict small districts’ ability to fund and maintain new pipelines, wells, and water treatment plants. Recognizing that there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution, the state has recently begun to experiment with regulatory, administrative, and financial tools to help solve the problem.

Consolidating small water districts into larger ones is a relatively low-cost and durable solution that can bring lower per unit costs and improved levels of service to small, disadvantaged communities. The State Water Board has exercised the authority granted last year to mandate such mergers with six consolidations in the Central Valley. The state also covers some costs for consolidations. One of the most notable examples is the voluntary merging of 1,800 water-stressed homes in unincorporated East Porterville with the larger and more resilient water system serving the nearby city of Porterville.

The suite of bills signed this year—Senate Bill (SB) 552, SB 1263, and SB 1456—builds on past progress to strengthen the water safety net in several ways.

  • Improving access to funding: SB 1456 makes it easier for water systems serving small, disadvantaged communities to use state financing for capital improvements such as drinking water treatment plants. The bill extends this benefit to professional water service providers that serve small disadvantaged communities across the state.
  • Enhancing technical and managerial capacity: Even where financial resources are available, a small water system lacking experienced managers or expert technical staff may struggle to maintain water treatment and distribution systems. SB 552 offers a remedy by allowing the State Water Board to hire a third-party administrator to manage the water system on behalf of the community. The administrator can set and collect water rates and apply for other funding to build water treatment plants and cover operations and maintenance costs. This new tool potentially offers a long-term solution for small water systems, especially when the community doesn’t have any neighboring systems to easily connect with.
  • Preventing new unsustainable systems: SB 1263 aims to prevent communities from developing unsustainable water systems in the first place. The bill authorizes the State Water Board to deny permits for new water systems if the applicants cannot demonstrate adequate capacity to produce reliable and safe drinking water for at least 20 years under a variety of hydrologic conditions. Instead, it encourages them to partner with neighboring water suppliers that can.

These new tools for addressing drinking water issues in disadvantaged communities show that the state is both conscious of the complexity of the situation and willing to experiment with new approaches. We’ll be keeping track of legislative developments related to water in future blog posts.