This month Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill to establish the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund, which aims to improve access to safe drinking water for residents in disadvantaged communities. Approximately 1 million Californians currently lack access to safe drinking water, the vast majority of whom live in small rural communities that rely on private drinking water wells or poorly maintained water systems contaminated by harmful constituents such as arsenic, nitrates, and 1,2,3-TCP.
According to the State Water Resources Control Board, there are “more than 300 rural and small water systems that cannot currently provide safe drinking water to their communities.” And the problem could worsen, as the State Board maintains that there are “hundreds more small systems serving millions of people that are at risk of failure due to lack of capacity to treat emerging contaminants, poor financial health, and aging infrastructure.”
Newsom originally tried to raise the money through a tax on water bills, but experienced significant pushback from lawmakers representing communities served by larger water systems. Instead, the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund will use up to $130 million per year from the state’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund (GGRF) and General Fund until 2030. The administration justified the use of GGRF by arguing that bottled water production and transportation generates carbon emissions. The small central California community of Sanger, where Newsom signed the bill, currently gets bottled water deliveries every two weeks through a temporary grant program.
“In these communities where there isn’t access to safe drinking water, you’re often bringing in bottled water, you’re trucking in water that’s safe to drink, and all of these have emissions impacts,” Newsom representative Vivek Viswanathan reasoned at the state budget meeting in June. “We believe these investments not only help those communities by giving them safe drinking water but also fulfill the goals of the Cap and Trade program.”
Senator Bill Monning (D – Carmel) who co-introduced the bill further argued that the connection between climate change, a result of greenhouse gas emissions, and the prevalence of unsafe contaminated water legitimizes the use of GGRF money. Monning said that the state is working to reduce carbon emissions, but the water crisis requires lawmakers to also “be mindful and attentive to the present-day victims of climate change.”
Past attempts to provide rural communities with access to safe drinking water have included the consolidation of water systems. However, such plans have typically been thwarted by financial and social obstacles. Supporters believe the bill, SB 200, is a more viable solution because it provides funding for water maintenance and infrastructure, giving small rural communities the support needed to repair their water supplies without prolonged negotiations with larger neighboring water systems.
Of course, California still needs more effective and sustainable solutions to successfully address its pervasive water crisis. Worsening climate conditions resulting in historic drought and wildfires coupled with the state’s dilapidated infrastructure have imperiled the state’s water supply and jeopardized California’s future. Water should be top of mind for every Californian.