California’s water systems are failing communities

Last summer, local drought emergencies were declared statewide, including in Santa Clara County, south of San Francisco Bay, which declared an emergency in July. There, some residents have seen their water bills skyrocket. Others have seen their taps dry up.

“Santa Clara County is possibly one of the darkest and most dangerous counties in the state,” said Gary Kremen, vice president of the Santa Clara Valley Water District, known as Valley Water. “It’s because most of our storage is used up. “

Despite recent rains, Santa Clara County’s challenges are indicative of larger infrastructure problems in California’s water pricing system. In 2021, the National Water Resources Control Council found that 21% of California’s drinking water systems have “unaffordable” rates for the residents they serve, based on average household income. The cost of water bills in these systems inhibits the ability of community members to pay for drinking water to meet their basic needs.

“I’m talking about the people who get water bills that literally eat away at their food,” Kremen said.

San Jose Water, a Santa Clara County utility company, says in a rate notice that the rate increases in recent years are due to costs associated with improving infrastructure and providing reliable water service. Last July, San Jose Water customers saw their monthly rates rise 4.38% on average year-to-date due to higher prices from Valley Water, the Santa Clara County water wholesaler. and San Jose Water. According to the Valley Water website, this price increase is necessary to take on the “monumental task” of funding enough water for the drought-stricken county.

Santa Clara’s challenges were compounded by the fact that the Anderson Reservoir, one of the county’s largest sources of drinking water, was drained in February 2020 to just 3% of capacity for the Seismic Retrofit Project of the County. Anderson Dam. While this project was implemented to protect future water supplies and surrounding community structures from leaks that could result from severe earthquakes, it has left the county in dire straits.

Lucy Andrews, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at the University of California at Berkeley, and a former consultant for water systems optimization, suggests that the current storage situation in Santa Clara could have been be avoided.

“[There is] a lot of enthusiasm for investing in innovation at large, but not a lot of enthusiasm for investing in maintenance, ”she said.

In Andrews’ opinion, the drain of the Anderson Reservoir was inevitable due to its status as a “high risk dam, in an incredibly unsatisfactory condition”. However, if this issue had been addressed sooner, suggests Andrews, Santa Clara County might have been better prepared to deal with the current drought conditions.

“This is just a classic example of what happens when you return the ball,” Andrews said. “If they had identified this shortcoming and chosen to fix it 20 years ago, the price could have been very different. They probably could have done this while still retaining some degree of storage.

The Anderson Dam seismic modernization project leaves Santa Clara County dependent primarily on imported water from surrounding areas with greater and more reliable water storage. The majority of this water comes from the State Water Project and the federal Central Valley Project, both of which pump water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta through a series of aqueducts and reservoirs for distribution throughout the state. Valley Water also imports water from the San Luis Reservoir in Merced County.

William Armaline, director of the Institute of Human Rights at San Jose State University, sees this water storage problem – and its consequences for environmental justice – as an infrastructure problem . “In the infrastructure bill we all have to – know that we will need anyway – to think about water storage and transporting water from places that have too much to places that have it. need, ”he said.

But while counties like Santa Clara are currently able to source water from state and federal programs, it may not always be a reliable water source in the future due to longer and longer droughts. serious due to climate change. This increased demand for water export is also not beneficial for the ecosystems from which this water is drawn.

A report released in May 2019 by the California Department of Water Resources predicts that by 2050, the state’s water project deliveries will be “about 300,000 acre-feet below current conditions.” Additionally, the report states that years of drought exacerbated by climate change have reduced the storage of state reservoirs, threatening the state’s drinking water supply and fisheries.

Research conducted through the United States Geological Survey found that increased demand for water exports due to the drought contributed to the decline of endangered species in the Bay Area, particularly the Delta Smelt. The resulting report states that “the rapid decline of the species and the failure of recovery efforts demonstrate an inability to manage the delta for the” equal goals “of maintaining a healthy ecosystem and providing a reliable water supply to people. Californians “.

However, it is not only ecosystems that are feeling the effects of this demand for water exports. Communities across California and across the western United States are hit hard by the lack of adequate water storage and distribution infrastructure. Much of California’s drinking water distribution infrastructure is well beyond its achievable lifespan, according to Andrews, affecting both the reliability and relative cleanliness of the water being distributed.

Andrews has spent years working with smaller utility companies to fix these older systems. Many of the smaller utilities she worked with served smaller, more rural communities.

I think it’s fair to say that many disadvantaged communities… are experiencing a larger incident of degraded drinking water infrastructure that comes with a greater risk of contamination, ”Andrews said.

A report released in May 2021 by the Office of the Legislative Analyst found that the communities most affected by the water scarcity were the small rural communities located in California’s Central Valley. “Additionally, many communities that have lost – or remain vulnerable to loss – access to safe drinking water contain high proportions of low-income and Latino residents,” the report says.

It remains to be seen how these statewide issues will be addressed in a systematic and equitable manner. For now, Kremen has said these issues shouldn’t be discussed just “when the tap is dry.”

“[We] need to move forward, ”he said.

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