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Central Valley Communities Struggle for Drinking Water: Q&A with Felicia Marcus, California Water Expert

Felicity Barringer
Nov 10 2020

What has been done and what still needs to be done to untangle physical, financial and political barriers blocking fair access to clean drinking water in California?

Embed from Getty Images

East Porterville resident Donna Johnson, left, delivered bottled water to town residents during the multiyear drought in 2015. The small Central Valley city is one of hundreds in the state facing shortages of safe drinking water supply.   David McNew/Getty Images

By Felicity Barringer

Felicia Marcus, former chair, California State Water Resources Control Board.

Felicia Marcus, former chair, California State Water Resources Control Board.   Water in the West, Stanford University

Environmental inequality is pervasive in California’s less wealthy areas; the inequities are stark in small Central Valley communities whose drinking water from home wells has long been polluted. Not just polluted, but in some cases cut off entirely as nearby farms over-pumped local groundwater during the major drought.

As chair of the California State Water Resources Control Board, Felicia Marcus had to confront the issue directly. Marcus, a lawyer who is now the William C. Landreth Visiting Fellow at Stanford’s Water in the West program, headed the Environmental Protection Agency’s Southwest Region under President Bill Clinton, and before that was president of Los Angeles’s Board of Public Works and the western director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.


Here are Felicia Marcus’s answers about what has been done and what still needs to be done to untangle the physical, financial and political barriers blocking fair access to clean drinking water in California.



How many California communities lack safe drinking water? Where are they? How many people live there?

The folks at the State Water Board are working on this. It’s not an easy question to answer precisely, in part because the state and federal rules have only applied to communities serving over 25 people for over 60 days a year so we have pretty good data there. There are lots of people in even smaller systems or on domestic wells that are completely unregulated or lightly regulated at the county level. So a big priority is to get a handle on the entire scope of the issue.

Upwards of 200 to 300 small communities under state jurisdiction are unable to consistently meet state and federal drinking water requirements, and estimates range from hundreds of thousands to more than a million people who are potentially drinking from contaminated groundwater sources across the entire population. These are primarily in the Central Valley, the Salinas Valley, and the Coachella Valley, but there are also quite a few urban systems that are also plagued by contamination that they can’t handle. That total includes the people who get their water from even smaller non-state regulated systems or use domestic wells, which are regulated by the counties or not at all.


What interim measures has the state used to ensure safe drinking water in those areas? Bottled water? How much has that cost and what does it mean for the families that depend on bottled water?

Bottled water has been an emergency band-aid for many. But it should only be a stopgap while you get to a more sustainable structural solution. Fortunately, we got funding to help communities that ran out of water; unfortunately, that was more easy to come by than funding for people using substandard water. That has to change. During the drought, because people were not only drinking contaminated water but had run out of water, we were able to get emergency permission and appropriations that allowed the State Water Control Board, along with the Department of Water Resources and Office of Emergency Services, to drill wells, run pipes, and deliver water to tanks put on front lawns. The state spent many millions on these stop-gap measures. We needed permission as well as money because we needed to help smaller unregulated communities and domestic well users. People don’t realize that one of the most painful things for government employees is that they have to have authority to spend money as well as the dollars to spend.

The best solution is to get people hooked up to a capable water system that can treat, operate, and maintain operations meeting today’s stringent standards. It can take entirely separate treatment systems for contaminants like chemicals, nitrates and other things. Each community can have a different mix of naturally occurring and human-caused contamination. Treatment costs add up quickly.


What are the sources of contamination — or groundwater withdrawal — that leave wells dry or ensure that the water in the wells is contaminated and unsafe?

Two different questions. Wells can run dry for a variety of reasons—heavy drought is of course one of them. Someone else putting in a stronger deeper well is another that we have seen a lot of in unregulated parts of the state. That led to the historic Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014, which finally gave the state authority to regulate groundwater over-pumping, the last state in the West to do so.

Map of California groundwater basins showing prioritization

Map of California groundwater basins showing state prioritization levels. Click for interactive map.   Geoff McGhee/Bill Lane Center for the American West

Contamination is another story, though over-pumping can definitely lead to contamination. Sometimes there is naturally occurring contamination, like Arsenic and hexavalent chrome (known as Chrome 6). They can be mobilized by pumping of certain kinds, and they can also come from pollution. Other times, it has been deposited as a by-product of agriculture (e.g., nitrogen or pesticides), or through industrial practices (e.g., non-naturally occurring Chrome 6, 1,2,3-Trichloropropane). The nitrogen pollution is both from irrigated agriculture and large-scale dairy operations. In some cases you can pinpoint who put it there. In many more, you can’t. In urban areas, you have a witches’ brew of chemicals left from historic industrial use.

Over-pumping can also draw in saline water from nearby aquifers. This happens in coastal aquifers with regularity. It can also happen by moving saline groundwater inland. You really need data to identify where saline plumes are coming from, where they are going, and what pumping is making it happen.

In most urban areas, agencies have the resources to get the data they need to make treatment and management decisions and to treat and blend water to keep it safe. That isn’t rocket science. But in rural areas, or urban pockets, there frequently isn’t the economy of scale or the managerial, technical, or financial resources to do it. New tools are needed.


What are the biggest puzzle pieces in improving water equity? Financial? Or political?

Financing is obviously critical for all sorts of obvious and not-so-obvious reasons. Many of these small systems, let alone domestic wells, are in communities that can’t afford to run systems even if they are built by the state. In one case, the state built a system and the town had to close it — they couldn’t afford to pay for its management and the chemicals needed. But up until last year the state only had the money to help them with what are known as “capital” expenses, like buildings or equipment, not ongoing operations and maintenance like staffing, chemicals, maintenance of equipment, rent.

That’s why it was such a big deal to get legislation passed last year setting aside $130 million annually to subsidize operations and maintenance for small communities. It’s money that can make the difference between well managed systems and ones relying on duct tape and fingers crossed. That’s money the rest of us put up to acknowledge that we are all one state, all Californians, and it is in all of our interests, moral and actual, to see that safe and affordable water is available to all.

Map of state subsidies provided to small disadvantaged communities in California

Map of state subsidies provided to small disadvantaged communities in California.   State Water Resources Control Board

The water board is now working on plans for spending that money. It was the final piece of the puzzle needed to make good on the state’s Human Right to Water goals. As for the bigger communities into which smaller communities might be consolidated, legislation gives the state board authority to order consolidation and subsidize necessary capital costs. It also can now hire “administrators” to take over failing systems or design new ones. It now can subsidize some operations and maintenance expenses and pay for the administrators it had authority but no funding to hire.

You are right to talk about puzzle pieces, because that is definitely what it takes. There is not one way to do this, it’s not a McDonald’s kind of enterprise. It’s like tinker toys, Mr. Potato Head or a puzzle, where you put the pieces together in a way that makes the most sense in each community or constellation of communities. To be effective, you have to work respectfully with communities, so they can choose to pick the puzzle pieces that make the most sense given the unique characteristics of their community, or group of nearby communities.


Concern about inequities in safe drinking water deliveries in California have been around for decades. There has been improvement in areas, like East Porterville in Tulare County. Why did it take so long? What happened in East Porterville? Can it be replicated?

Embed from Getty Images

Map showing East Porterville in Tulare County.

East Porterville lies south of Visalia in Tulare County.   Bill Lane Center for the American West

East Porterville is one of the most interesting cases. It is a large community that looks like a large rectangle cut out of the larger surrounding City of Porterville. There are historic reasons for that, not all of them good. In the midst of the drought, it came to light that East Porterville residents were largely on domestic wells, not connected to the City of Porterville. It was rather obvious that a solution would be to consolidate.

The issue was highlighted not because the water quality in those wells was poor — which it was — but because the community actually had wells run dry during the drought. An amazing woman, Donna Johnson, delivered water out of the trunk of her car. She also was phenomenal, in concert with community activists, in getting word out. Churches and government agencies delivered bottled water and set up showering and laundry stations. The Office of Emergency Services (OES) came in with large tanks to go in front yards and filled them periodically from tanker trucks. Eventually, legislation allowed OES, the state board, and the Department of Water Resources to pool resources and connect those homes to the Porterville system.

It was unusual that we not only got permission to help domestic well owners, but to physically connect them all the way into their homes from the street (these “laterals” are traditionally the homeowner’s responsibility). The East Porterville mobilization and teamwork was great. Mobilization on a smaller scale is happening in various shapes and sizes across the state. The 200-300 state regulated systems with compliance problems will be easiest to get to and will serve the greatest number of people fastest. In many cases, some smaller non-state regulated systems can be consolidated with them or with each other to create viable water agencies. Individual homes with domestic wells will be harder to get to. Some, as in Porterville, will have enough geographic proximity to a water system that they can be consolidated into an agency, or at least have an agency that can oversee and help them get home-scale treatment systems. Domestic wells that are remote will be the most difficult to reach.


Why did it take so long to recognize and fix a significant problem?

It took a long time to act because small systems and domestic wells were seen as a local issue; the state had no authority to help. Over the past decade, community activists, like the Community Water Center, the Leadership Counsel for Leadership and Accountability, and Clean Water Action built the case for action. They first got the Human Right To Water (HRTW) policy passed in 2012, the first state in the nation to have one. They actually got it passed at least twice, because it was vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger based on objections from larger water agencies. Governor Brown signed it and supported it when it was put on his desk over those same objections. The statute set state policy, which then enabled, and encouraged state agencies to try to prioritize the issue but it didn’t include new authorities, directives, or deadlines. In 2012 and 2013, the state board issued reports illustrating just how serious the problem was. Media attention brought it to light for people all over the state, so the political will was built to do more about it. Activists then spent the next years getting the tools to the state agencies to actually implement policies and programs that could make the aspirations of HRTW real on the ground.


Has there been resistance to efforts to solve the safe drinking water problem? Or is there general agreement that it is a human right?

Embed from Getty Images

California Gov. Jerry Brown holds a chart showing statewide average precipitation as he speaks during a news conference in January 2014 in San Francisco.   Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

I think everyone gives lip service to it, but not everyone is willing to do something about it. For many years it was one of those “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” issues whether in rural areas or urban centers. In 2012, Governor Brown signed the Human Right to Water statute, which started the ball rolling.

Once the issue was elevated, agencies like ours could make it a top priority in all of our programs — funding, enforcement, regulation. Capital dollars came forth in propositions put on the ballot by the legislature. The drinking water program was consolidated into the state board from the Department of Public Health in 2015 in part to give disadvantaged communities a place for technical assistance and “one-stop shopping” for both their water supply and wastewater treatment needs. Things began to move.

Generally arguments revolve around who should pay. Polling has shown that the general public would support a small fee on their water bills to help pay for safe water for all. The water utilities were adamantly against it, seeing it as the “camel’s nose under the tent” for a bigger set of fees like we have in the energy arena, which is understandable but unfortunate. But using general funds for ongoing operations and maintenance is risky. It puts something that must be continually on deck into an annual argument over the general fund, competing with every other human-services need out there out of a pot of money whose size varies considerably, depending upon the economy. No matter the economy, people need clean, safe, and affordable water and sanitation.

In the end, after two years of failing to get the fee under the Brown Administration, Governor Newsom opted to use cap-and-trade dollars, which is causing consternation in the climate world and activists’ concern that it is less certain than a fee. But the argument over how to pay for it cost us a couple of years when we could have been helping more people, so I’m just glad something passed, and hope they find a way to assure more sustainable funding in the near future.


If you could wave a magic wand and make changes in state laws or spending to ensure water equity, what would you do?

I would want a sustained funding source not just for this, but for investments in technology that would benefit everyone. There is an amazing array of new technologies being developed in the arenas of treatment, monitoring, sensors, and big data. These could not only help more people have clean, safe, and affordable water but could also save tons of money and the environment. Institutional support for that kind of research, testing, and dissemination has worked a miracle in the energy arena. We should be doing it for water, too, rather than just fighting over it.

 

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On U.S. Public Lands, Can Biden Undo What Trump Has Wrought? President Biden’s ambitious agenda for public lands includes bans on oil and gas drilling and restored protections for key areas. Reversing the Trump administration’s policies, however, may be made difficult by conservative courts and rules changes. Yale Environment 360

Why Utah’s Wild Mink COVID-19 Cases Matter: In Utah, which faces similar problems to those encountered by the Netherlands last year, thousands of farmed minks have died of Covid-19. The affected sites have been forced into quarantine, and a wild mink tested positive for coronavirus last month -- the first wild animal to have naturally been infected with the virus. High Country News spoke with Dr. Anna Fagre, a virologist and veterinarian at Colorado State University, to help put the recent COVID-19 outbreak among wild minks in context. High Country News

Timber Tax Cuts Cost Oregon Towns Billions. Then Polluted Water Drove Up the Price. In rural Oregon, logging-related water contamination has threatened their access to clean, safe drinking water, forcing small towns to spend millions on new water infrastructure. The future of logging regulations remains murky for the nation’s top lumber producer. For decades, Oregon has allowed logging companies to leave fewer trees behind than in other states. Propublica/Oregonian

The Interior Department Effort to Relocate Jobs to Colorado Prompted a Mass Exodus; some 41 of 328 employes slated to move to Grand Junction, Colorado actually made the move; the rest left the agency. The Bureau of Land Management’s loss of so many longtime career employes – only 60 jobs were left in place in the Washington office -- is an example of the Trump Administration’s success the federal government. Washington Post

An Exploration of the Reasons to Cherish Microbiotic Soils. Fungi, lichen, cyanobacteria, algae, and other tiny organisms live in just the top few millimeters of soil; these crusts are critical to the health of the desert, and can be damaged repeated trampling by people, cattle, or off-road vehicles. Sierra Club

Some Ecological Damage from Trump’s Rushed Border Wall Could Be Repaired; conservationists are urging the Biden administration to remove sections of the barrier that cut across critical habitats, block migration corridors, and damage watersheds. The coalition opposing the wall has identified specific problematic sections to be potentially removed. Scientific American

Tens of Millions of Birds Pass Through Two Corridors in the West: California’s Central Valley and the Colorado River Delta. New research finds that more than 82 million birds pass through these regions during spring migration, with tree swallows concentrating in the Colorado delta and Anna’s hummingbirds in the Central Valley. This data helps define critical habitats for western birds, with up to 80 percent of some species’ populations passing through the two areas. Yale Environment 360

The Navajo Generating Station, a Major Employer and a Major Polluter on Navajo Land, has Been Demolished after Navajo and Hopi community members fought for years to close the facility. Now, Navajo and Hopi community members are outlining steps for community restoration, such as securing electricity and clean water access for residents, as well as job training. Center For Health, Environment And Justice

Articles Worth Reading: January 19, 2020

A Forever Drought Takes Hold in the West. The U.S. Drought Monitor — the nation’s official tally — shows Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico mired in “exceptional drought.” This type of drought is only supposed to happen every 50 years, but it’s now a regular occurrence. Even if rain and snow arrive in the coming months, parched soil will slurp it up, leaving less for riverbeds. Axios

“We’re Bound by That River,” one water expert said of the Colorado River, which supplies water to 40 million people. “All of us, regardless of our legal rights, regardless of what’s on paper, we need to consider how we can use less water. And we need to take action immediately.” The Colorado Basin and its water managers must juggle the laws that are decades old, new agreements and persistent aridity. The huge reservoirs of Lake Powell and Lake Mead have shrunk dramatically. Some observers say the rules governing distribution of the Colorado’s waters need to be fundamentally reimagined. Arizona Republic

Unlikely Coalitions Form to Block New Port Facilities to export fossil fuels. Teaming with Native Americans, ranchers and sportsmen, environmentalists have worked to block nearly every effort to export coal, oil and liquified natural gas from the West Coast. They just claimed another major victory this month – the latest of more than two dozen -- when a proposed coal-export terminal in Washington state was called off. Associated Press

“Fossil” Groundwater Is Being Depleted in California, and its users can’t rely on it being replenished any century soon, according to new study. If the water tucked underground for 100 centuries is used for the crops and pools of the 21st century, the fossil water stores will disappear for good. “It’s just like taking gold out of the ground, out of a mountain,” said Menso de Jong, the study’s lead author. “The gold is not going to grow back.” San Jose Mercury News

Apaches Sue to Stop First Step in Approval of Copper Mine Near Sacred Site. If an environmental study’s publication is blocked, the process of approving the mine planned by Resolution Copper might be derailed. A podcast interview with the reporter covering the controversy, Debra Utacia Krol of The Arizona Republic. KSUT

To Help Rural Economies, One-Third of Spotted Owl Habitat in Oregon Was Excluded from Protection. The size of the protected acreage has yo-yoed from one administration to the next, but this cut in protected areas is one of the biggest on record. The amount of habitat protected in the Obama administration was more than 9 million acres; the Trump administration in its final days cut that by more than 3 million acres. E&E News

Rural Coloradans Seek to Contain Light Pollution. NASA photos of Colorado from space show a widening urban white-out reaching into rural areas. The dark-sky zones that southwestern Colorado leaders are proposing in areas like the San Luis Valley would, all combined, cover more than 3,800 square miles — the largest official area protected from artificial light on the planet. Denver Post

Wildlife Take Stock of Photographers Taking Stock of Wildlife. “Animals interrupting wildlife photographers,” a thread by the Catalan journalist Joaquim Campa. Twitter

Articles Worth Reading: December 7, 2020

New Data Shows Lethal Damage to Coho Salmon Is From Tire Residue, as researchers double-down on the findings about tires’ environmental damage. One chemical, 6PPD-quinone, interacts with ozone and becomes highly toxic to Puget Sound salmon, taking out 40 to 80 percent of returning salmon before the spawn. The problem extends from Washington state, where scientists have been studying the issue, to California; tires are the largest source of microplastics in San Francisco Bay. The Seattle Times Los Angeles Times

With Legal Barriers Gone, More Westerners Are Harvesting Rain to supplement the disappearing water in the Colorado River and the Ogallala Aquifer. Rainwater harvesting—a cheap, low-barrier, low-energy method—may provide one piece of the long-term solution to water shortages in a region where climate change is intensifying droughts. Today, rainwater capture is legal in every state, though many have restrictions. A few, like Colorado, didn’t legalize it until 2016 and still restrict the total amount harvested. The Counter

A Navajo-Majority County Commission in Utah Calls for Restoring the Bears’ Ears Monument to its original size. The Trump Administration dramatically reduced the monument from 1.35 million acres to two separate areas totaling 200,000 acres. The San Juan County Commission voted 2-to-1 to make the request, with its two Navajo members in the majority. Associated Press

In the Wake of Fierce Fires, A Sudden Burst of Logging in Colorado. State foresters are overseeing wholesale mechanized tree-cutting, as tractors dig holes up to 140 acres in size are appearing among the lodgepole pines. A hot national wood-products market snaps up the lumber created in Colorado, which has never traditionally been a logging state. Across western Colorado, insect attacks on old and drought-enfeebled trees over the past decade have left 5 million acres of skeletal trees in a region climate change has made susceptible to wildfire. This year, 700,000 acres burned. Denver Post

As Insurers Blanch at Newly Calculated Wildfire Losses — $24 Billion in the U.S. in 2018, they continue to flee fire prone areas. In California alone in 20219, insurers pulled coverage from more than 230,000 homes — about 31 percent more than the year before. California regulators want to keep private insurers from fleeing the state, but know that climate change is changing everyone’s risk calculation. Bloomberg

Graphics & the West

Where California Grows Its Food

See the most detailed survey ever done of crops and land use in California. It covers nine million acres of land devoted to grapes, alfalfa, cotton, plums, you name it – food for people and animals all over the world. View map »

California's Changing Energy Mix

A look at the energy sources California utilities have used gives us insights into the state’s progress in decarbonizing its electricity supply. In 2015, 35% of total electricity generation (in-state generation plus imported electricity) came from zero-greenhouse-gas sources, which include solar, wind, hydropower, and nuclear. View Graphic »

U.S. Conservation Easements

Conservation easements of various kinds cover more than 22 million acres of land in the United States, according to the National Conservation Easement Database, a public-private partnership. Take a look at our interactive map of nearly every conservation easement, with details on over 130,000 sites. View map »

 

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