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Unsafe drinking water is a reality for nearly a million Californians, especially in Central Valley, new audit finds

Nicolas COMTE

Nearly a million Californians have unsafe drinking water and the agency charged with helping them is ill-equipped to do so.

That’s according to a new state audit of the California Water Resources Control Board, which says 920,000 residents are at increased risk of liver and kidney problems — and even cancer — because they get water from systems that fail to meet contaminant standards for safe drinking water.

The auditor says more than 800 water systems in the state are in that “failing” category, a number that has more than doubled in the last year.

Residents in the Central Valley, including San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties, were most likely to be affected by failing water systems. Other counties include Merced, Fresno, Tulare, Kings, San Bernardino and Kern.

According to the report, Sacramento County experienced anywhere from 1 to 1,000 residents affected by failing water systems, which is one of the lowest rates in the state.

The California Water Resources Control Board is supposed to provide funding to water systems to fix issues and bring water back to meet safe standards. But the auditor’s report says over the last five years, the average amount of time it took for water systems to complete their applications for these funds, and then for the State Water Board to review them and award funding, has nearly doubled, from almost a year and a half to almost three years.

“The longer the board takes to fund projects, the more expensive those projects become,” wrote Acting State Auditor Michael S. Tilden. “More importantly, delays increase the likelihood of negative health outcomes for Californians served by the failing water systems.”

Among the auditor’s recommendations, a streamlining of the process by the Water Board and new laws requiring the Water Board to update the Legislature on the status of failing water systems as well as its own delays in addressing the issues, including plans to end the delays.

The Water Board says that the volume of applications has more than doubled in recent years.

The Board issued a statement in the auditor’s report, saying that it would “implement many of its recommendations” but that board officials “respectfully disagree with the report’s framing.”

Specifically, the board says it has been “advancing the Human Right to Water as one of its top priorities” since 2014, and that a SAFER Drinking Water program which started in 2019, has increased clean and safe drinking water access “for more than 650,000 Californians in 120 communities, reducing the population of those served by failing water systems by more than 40%.”

The board says the program also provided hundreds of millions of dollars in grant funding to disadvantaged communities, including emergency assistance to nearly 10,000 households and water systems.

Here are additional findings from the state audit:

  • Some 370 of California’s water systems, which provide for nearly a million residents, “exceed the maximum contaminant levels for substances that are harmful to human health.” Additionally, the audit says more than 150 of these have been failing for at least five years. It adds that hundreds more are at risk of failing.
  • It takes too long for water systems to navigate state bureaucracy to improve their services: “Over the past five years, the average length of time for water systems to complete their applications and receive funding nearly doubled, from 17 months to 33 months.”
  • Many of the failing water systems are in the Central Valley, and more than two-third are in disadvantaged communities
Mike is a native Californian, born in Los Angeles. But in the years just before Mike’s birth, his parents lived in Sacramento, made many friends here, and Mike spent a week of every summer as a child in Sacramento when the family would come to visit. He grew up on ice cream from Vic’s and Gunther’s and movies at the Crest and Tower.
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