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California Needs Clean Water


Keep it clean. Photographer: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In 2012, former California governor Jerry Brown signed into law the Human Right to Water Act, recognizing that “every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water.”

At least 1 million Californians are still waiting to exercise that right, according to Brown’s successor, Governor Gavin Newsom, who has calledthe state’s water crisis a “moral disgrace and a medical emergency.” Although the vast majority of the state’s water remains clean, some areasare struggling to solve serious supply and pollution problems. Without sustained action by the state, these dire challenges threaten to grow worse.

One problem is California’s climate. Most of the state’s rain and snow falls north of Sacramento, while most of the homes, businesses and farms that draw water are located south of there. Climate change has led to decreased snowpack, rising temperatures, and more frequent droughts, which are increasing demand and further straining supplies. Some rural communities lost access to tap water completely in recent years as wells went dry.

Pollution is only making matters worse. As of 2018, more than 200 water systems, serving more than 300,000 Californians, had unsafe drinking water. Many of the state’s several hundred thousand domestic wells and hundreds of small county-regulated water systems may be similarly compromised. Most of these are in small towns that rely on groundwater. Many of them are in farming areas where pollution from manure and fertilizer is pervasive, producing nitrates that seep into groundwater over many years. A state report noted that nitrate contamination is likely to get worse for decades to come.

Unavoidably, remedies for these problems will be costly. As a start, the state needs to impose order on its patchwork water infrastructure, which includes some 7,000 different systems and an array of regulators. It should increase pressure on struggling local water systems to find bigger, stronger partners with the capacity to pump and filter contaminated water.

Such consolidation would improve economies of scale while bringing much-needed infrastructure and technical expertise to systems that are failing to deliver clean water. It would also make it easier to sustain upgrades: One research group estimates that maintaining needed pumping and filtering improvements in smaller and poorer communities would cost about $160 million annually — a trifle for a state government with a $213 billion budget, but well beyond the collective means of local water systems.

With California enjoying a robust economy and hefty budget surplus, now is the time to find a steady source of funding for these fixes. Regrettably, the state has just rejected several viable ones. The governor and the legislature recently passed on a water tax and a fee on nitrogen fertilizer that would’ve covered the needed costs. They similarly dismissed a proposed drinking water trust fund. Instead, they opted to redirect $100 million annually from the state’s cap-and-trade fund, which is supported by polluter fees. The general fund is expected to account for another $30 million.

That’s a problem. The cap-and-trade fund is designated for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, not operating and maintaining small water systems. As California confronts climate-related stress, pressure will rise to return those funds to the purpose for which they were rightly devoted. The state’s general fund may be an even less reliable source of money.

Because of its huge population and volatile climate, California would face water challenges under virtually any scenario. But climate change and small, decentralized water systems are only stressing it further. It needs a recurring source of funds that can address these challenges without sacrificing its other worthy goals.

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