Californians with Unsafe Tap Water may See Relief with Budget Trailer Bill

The Arvin water tower, located near Arvin High School. Photo Credit: Alyssa Morones

Every month, Bartolo Chavez goes to the Arvin Community Services District building to pay his water bill for the home he and his wife live in. But he doesn’t use that water for drinking or cooking. To drink, he buys bottled water. For cooking, also bottled water.

This the way of life in Arvin, where the tap water has been in violation of state health standards for arsenic since 2006.

“It’s very hard,” said Chavez, who has lived in Arvin for more than two decades. “We buy water to drink and cook with, and I also pay my water bill every month. Basically I have to pay two bills.”

Arvin, a rural agricultural community in the Central Valley, has been in violation of allowable arsenic levels since the state lowered the amount of arsenic allowed in drinking water from 50 to 10 parts per billion.

When the state recently implemented mandatory testing for another contaminant, 1,2,3 TCP, it found that the water supply also contained dangerously high levels of the man-made chemical that the federal Environmental Protection Agency lists as a likely carcinogen in humans. The contaminant entered groundwater sources as the result of pesticides sold and used decades ago.

Spurred by problems with water quality in more than 250 communities across the state, including Arvin, state lawmakers have proposed a Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund. The tax-based fund, which would generate approximately $140 million per year, would help communities afford to fix old pipes, stem contamination and provide safe drinking water again.

Safe Water Needed Statewide

Unsafe water isn’t just an issue in agricultural communities.

California has more than 3,000 independent water systems. As of May, 269 of those were out of state compliance. The out-of-compliance districts are scattered across all parts of the state, with more than half of those located in the San Joaquin Valley.

“We see issues across the state in nearly every county, in both urban and rural contexts,” said Jonathan Nelson, policy director at the Community Water Center, an advocacy organization that works with communities throughout the San Joaquin Valley.

California’s drinking water crisis stems from a combination of factors, including difficulties maintaining and updating water system infrastructure, ongoing and residual pollutants from the state’s large agriculture and dairy industries, and also naturally occurring pollutants like arsenic. Some water contamination has been aggravated by California’s drought. Increased pumping from aquifers, and the resulting lower water levels, for example, releases arsenic trapped in the ground.

California became the first state in the nation to recognize the human right to water in 2012 with legislation signed by Gov. Jerry Brown. And yet, approximately 360,000 Californians have unsafe drinking water running through their taps, according to a McClatchy analysis conducted using data from the State Water Control Board.

The Community Water Center estimates that more than 1 million Californians are affected by unsafe drinking water each year, with rural and disadvantaged communities left especially vulnerable to a lack of access to safe tap water, and to solutions.

Tainted Wells

Arvin, like many small, rural or disadvantaged communities in California, has struggled to raise the funds necessary to completely fix its water problems.

“It’s a pretty small economy of scale,” said Gerardo Tinoco, Jr., rural development specialist at the Rural Community Assistance Corporation and an Arvin resident. “There’s not that many people to draw money from and many are low-income. If water rates increase too much, it’s going to be a burden.”

While the water district was able to turn off the wells tainted with TCP, solutions to eliminate arsenic from the community’s drinking sources will prove costly.

Arvin has secured funds through a state loan to drill new wells that draw water that meets state compliance. This will cost about $15 million dollars and is set to be complete by 2019. The alternative would be to install a filtration system to filter out arsenic. Raul Barraza, Jr., general manager of the Arvin Community Services District, said that for a filtration system like this, other communities had been quoted at around $30 million, with ongoing maintenance costs of about $180,000 every 16 to 18 months.

The water vending machines recently installed with the help of a grant. Residents receive 15 tokens, each worth one gallon of water, when they pay their water bill each month. Photo: Alyssa Morones

Interim solutions include water vending machines, funded through a grant, and treatment filters installed at schools, parks, health centers and other public gathering spaces around town, but these aren’t perfect fixes.  

The filters, which need frequent maintenance, can’t be placed in private residences. Chavez says he uses the water vending machines, but the 15 free gallons he receives each month only last a few days, and there are some days when the machines don’t work because their frequent use means they need downtime to filter more water.

Residents also may not know if the water they drink at work is safe; for example, TCP was recently found in the drinking water at Grimmway Farms facilities in Arvin.

In the meantime, the community pays hidden, and often unknown, costs for poor water.

Chronic arsenic exposure has been linked to thyroid disruption, various cancers and non-cancer diseases such as cardiovascular disease. In children, chronic arsenic exposure is linked to impaired brain development, immune problems and cancer later in life. Children are more susceptible to environmental chemicals than adults because, as the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment notes, children “eat, drink, and breathe more per pound of body weight than adults.”

Both Chavez and Tinoco said they’re concerned that their town’s water quality could explain a number of thyroid issues and unexplained ailments that community members complain of.

“My thinking is, if we can eliminate one thing people have to worry about, why wouldn’t we?” Tinoco said. “We have the technology to solve any water issue. It’s just a matter of money. It should not be the case that people are getting sick because of water, and had we been in a more affluent community, this would be fixed.”

‘A Question of Equity’

While state and federal funds and loan programs intended to help communities solve their water problems currently exist, there is an operations and maintenance gap: The existing funds are only intended for capital expenses, such as the costs of building or installing new filtration systems. They cannot be used to pay for the ongoing operation costs, which small or disadvantaged communities are often unable to support.

The Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund, which would generate approximately $140 each year, would bridge the gap by creating an ongoing funding source for operations and maintenance and for projects that will help communities set up financially sustainable water systems.

Originally proposed in 2017 as Senate Bill 623, the fund got a boost this January when Brown endorsed it and announced that he intends to include it as a budget trailer bill proposal. Either would require two-thirds approval on the senate and assembly floors.

The fund has the support of community and environmental advocates and the agriculture industry—not groups often on the same side on state issues.

If passed, the bill would be effective immediately, but water agencies would be allowed a grace period of about one year to implement billing.

It’s still hard to tell if this funding would be enough to completely fix all of the state’s drinking water issues, according to Darrin Polhemus, deputy director for the Division of Drinking Water at the California State Water Resources Control Board.

“We’re doing our best to estimate based on the problems we know exist,” he said.

Money would be drawn from multiple funding streams, including a tax on resident and business water bills, which would generate about $110 million per year. For residential and small-use facilities, that tax would amount to a little less than 95 cents each month, with rate exemptions to be give for low-income households under 200 percent of the federal poverty level; commercial and industrial facilities would pay more depending on size, with a cap of around $11 per month.

Agriculture would contribute to the fund through a tax on fertilizer purchases and fees paid by dairy farmers and feedlot operators, which would generate about $30 million per year. Polhemus explained that in return for paying into the fund, agriculture operations would receive some regulatory relief: They would be exempt from specific individual enforcement measures, such as clean-up and abatement orders, as long as those operations were following state rules and “best practices” to limit nitrate discharges.

The State Water Resources Control Board would conduct need and prioritization assessments to distribute fund monies.

“We know the communities already,” Polhemus said. “They qualify themselves by their difficulty in meeting water standards.”

In addition to operations and maintenance, the fund could be used for managerial transition efforts or engineering works for very small systems, some of which are run by community volunteers, to consolidate with bigger ones.

Polhemus emphasized that the board would work with communities on their options and to transition them to financially sustainable water system set-ups, to get them to a point where they no longer need fund assistance.

Critics of the bill are opposed to the tax on water and assert that the burden of correcting these water issues should fall on industry polluters.

Nelson countered those criticisms, saying that agriculture will be paying a fair share related to costs associated with nitrate contamination, which was calculated with the Water Foundation at around 30 percent.

“Talk is cheap,” said Nelson. “We’ve been talking about this problem for years, but nothing is free. The resources have to come from somewhere. It’s a simple question of who do we want to be as a state. Right now the state is divided between the haves and the have-nots. This is a question of equity.”

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