Clean, Affordable California Water a Challenge for Low-Income Communities

The pumping station for the Las Deltas drinking water system in Las Deltas, California. All photos by David Bacon.

By Dan Ross 

Amid the vast water wars of the drought-parched Central Valley, the tiny community of Las Deltas in Fresno County is enduring its own largely hidden battle over California’s liquid gold.

In many ways, Las Deltas projects a sense of time standing still — a feeling fostered by the decaying wooden skeletons of long abandoned buildings lining the roadside in an area with some of the highest levels of poverty in the nation. But the historical threads of the region aren’t just visible above ground.

The old asbestos pipes of Las Deltas’ water distribution system, which serves fewer than 100 homes and businesses with water piped from the nearby town of Firebaugh, is crumbling beneath the residents’ feet. A small band of locals started and ran the Las Deltas Mutual Water Company for decades. They disbanded it a couple of years ago, however, overwhelmed by the bureaucracy of running the disintegrating system and worried about potential lawsuits over its much-needed upgrades. Right now, no one is formally at the helm. When a pipe bursts, as it frequently does, a plumber is called from nearby Firebaugh to patch it up — a temporary fix in lieu of a long-term solution.

The price tag for upgrading the distribution system was estimated at some $4.8 million. It’s still unclear where the money will come from. But the average resident — some of them low income farm workers — can’t afford it, as they already pay $100 a month for their water, close to double the state average.

A massive funding gap means that some of California’s most broken small water systems, like that in Las Deltas, will face a yawning wait for desperately needed economic assistance.

“There’s a lot of poverty here,” says Tim Ward, a spry and wiry 72-year-old with a snow-white handlebar mustache, who has lived in Las Deltas all his life. As the former president of Las Deltas Mutual Water Company, Ward helped maintain the system for years, going out day or night to plug leaks. He believes an issue as crucial as clean, affordable water should prompt the county or state to help. On a recent tour of the community, he sums up his take: “They don’t care about us.”

Nearly 10 years ago, California enacted the Human Right to Water Act to help beleaguered communities like Las Deltas. This landmark legislation obligates the state to work towards safe, clean, affordable and accessible drinking water to the 1 million residents without it. Since then, there have been several key developments designed to bring this law to life, including a funding program to help failing systems get up to code. In his latest budget, Governor Newsom included nearly $1 billion to help users pay off a mammoth debt in unpaid water bills.

As the state moves toward its statutory goal, however, hundreds of small drinking water system operators and their mostly low income users face a tough reckoning. The reasons why include years of deferred infrastructure improvements, dwindling groundwater tables, tightening environmental standards and a dearth of trained talent within their ranks to oversee the work that desperately needs to happen.

Perhaps most crucially, a massive funding gap means that some of the state’s most broken small water systems, like that in Las Deltas, will face a yawning wait for desperately needed economic assistance.

“It’s a bit like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire,” says Jennifer Clary, California director of Clean Water Action, an environmental advocacy organization, comparing the lopsided challenges between larger and smaller systems. “Ginger Rogers had to do everything that Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels.”

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In April, the state released its first ever needs assessment, and the eagerly awaited 332-page report provides a stark overview of the challenges ahead.

Of the 2,779 small water systems investigated — including those with 3,300 or fewer service connections, and systems serving K-12 schools — the state labeled 326 as “highest priority” for being out of compliance or consistently failing to meet mandatory drinking water standards.

That list is growing, the report states, not shrinking.

While the projected costs over five years to bring just the most at-risk small water systems in California up to speed is $10.3 billion, the available financial assistance is short by some $4.7 billion.

When it comes to affordable drinking water, approximately one-third of small water systems serving vulnerable communities exceeded at least one of three key affordability thresholds: share of household income going towards water payments, extreme water bills and shut-offs through nonpayment. A recent state water board survey drew an even starker picture. The survey found at least 12% of households have water debt totalling some $600 million-$700 million, with low-income communities of color disproportionately impacted.

In his latest budget, Gov. Newsom earmarked nearly $1 billion to wipe out drinking and wastewater debt accrued between March 4, 2020, and June 15, 2021. But community members and advocacy organizations raise fears about the program’s purported benefits, especially awareness among the public and of participation among operators. “We are concerned that some water systems are choosing not to participate even as their customers drown in debts from the pandemic and risk losing access to drinking water,” wrote Kyle Jones, policy director for Community Water Center, in a press release Wednesday.

In an email to Capital and Main, Robert Brownwood, an assistant deputy director at the water board, wrote, “This is a real concern for the Board who is aggressively working with numerous entities to get the word out to all community water systems.”

Questions of short-term debt relief invariably lead to a much more intractable problem: What happens when these monies dry out and the debt starts to mount again? And rise it will, for the art of divining clean and accessible drinking water in California doesn’t come cheap, which, for its part, the state realizes.

A key aim of the needs assessment is to help regulators identify where to prioritize a sizable pot of state money for water infrastructure projects. This includes the Safe and Affordable Funding for Equity and Resilience (SAFER) program, launched in 2019 to provide a funding mechanism for disadvantaged communities. Indeed, the town of Firebaugh is in the process of applying for an estimated $2.5 million grant through this program to replace the damaged storage tank used to supply water to Las Deltas.

But while the projected costs over five years to bring just the most at-risk small water systems in California up to speed is some $10.3 billion, the available financial assistance — including from SAFER — is short by some $4.7 billion.

“Where does that money come from? That’s a huge question,” says Sue Ruiz, a community development specialist with Self-Help Enterprises, a non-profit that provides low-income communities with tools for self-sustainment. Ruiz has been helping Las Deltas for several years, and she’s concerned that much needed funds to both improve the community’s water distribution system and to properly consolidate the system with that of Firebaugh could take years to materialize.

“People are getting discouraged, rightfully so,” Ruiz adds. “But they’re not forgotten.”

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