It was only four years ago when a winter of torrential rain finally wrestled the state out of its last major drought, which had dragged on for five years and left thousands of domestic wells coughing up dust.
That drinking-water crisis made national headlines and helped shine a light on another long-simmering water crisis in California: More than 300 communities have chronically unsafe drinking water containing contaminants that can come with serious health consequences, including cancer. The areas hardest hit are mostly small, agricultural communities in the San Joaquin and Salinas valleys, which are predominantly Latino and are often also places classified by the state as “disadvantaged.” Unsafe water in these communities adds to a list of health and economic burdens made worse by the ongoing pandemic.
California took a step toward addressing the problem back in 2012 when it passed the country’s first state law declaring the human right to water. That was followed by a 2019 bill to help meet that mandate by establishing the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund.
But just how much cash is needed to address the problem?
The answer, we now know, is about $10 billion, according to a new “needs assessment” from state agencies and the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation that provides a detailed look at the scope of the problem and cost of solutions.
“The study is unique in that it’s the first — certainly for California, but I think also for any state — that looks across every source for drinking water purposes that can be quantified,” says Gregory Pierce, the study’s principal investigator and an adjunct assistant professor of urban planning at UCLA. This includes all public water systems regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act, as well as domestic wells and “state smalls” with fewer than 15 connections.
“I think this takes us many steps forward to better understanding where we need additional funding and what areas we should be focusing on in terms of proactively addressing at-risk systems,” says Michael Clairborne, directing attorney at the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, which works on water-equity issues in the state. “It also demonstrates that there’s still a real need for additional infrastructure funding for drinking water.”
Understanding the Problem
So how bad is it?
The causes of the state’s drinking water woes are varied — and worrisome. Nitrate, mostly from farms and dairies, is the costliest water contaminant, the study found. Nitrates are especially dangerous for infants, and can cause lethargy, dizziness and even death. Other groundwater contaminants include bacteria from leaking septic systems and uranium, which can cause kidney damage. Several other contaminants have been linked to cancers, including the industrial pollutant chromium-6, the pesticide 1,2,3-trichloropropane, and human-made and naturally-occurring sources of…