Labor Day guest commentary: AB 954 needed to better meet drought-impacted Californians’ needs and help create drought-resilient rural communities
In honor of Labor Day, a guest commentary by Laurel Firestone and Jenny Rempel, Community Water Center:
This Labor Day, some of the hardest-working families in California will be spending much of the holiday trying to secure a basic human right. They’ll drive to generous neighbors’ homes or, if they’re lucky, to central water tanks to fill up water buckets, because the wells that have supplied their homes for years have run dry. Some of these residents will also be making calls to the Governor’s Office and to their legislative representatives to advocate for the passage of a bill to ensure that Californians reliant on domestic wells have access to reliable, safe, and affordable water during the drought.
In 2015, in the seventh-largest economy in the world, it is inexcusable that thousands of Californians have no running water. With over 2,500 reported household well failures, we clearly have a crisis. Yet last week, without any prior reason or indication, state leaders failed to advance Assembly Bill 954 (Mathis and Alejo), demonstrating a lack of commitment to meeting the needs of drought-impacted Californians, especially those residents who rely on individual household wells.
Tens of millions of dollars have been set aside for emergency drought relief. Yet no state funding program has adequately addressed the needs of Californians who rely on individual household wells that have gone dry. Unbelievably, some residents have now lived without running water for nearly two years, without receiving any state assistance to implement lasting solutions – or even temporary ones.
We can better meet drought-impacted Californians’ needs and begin building drinking water systems that will make our communities more resilient in the face of future droughts. But it will take legislative action to allocate funding specifically for household well solutions, and state leadership to both proactively coordinate drinking water emergency response efforts and accelerate funding for lasting solutions.
AB954 would have appropriated $10 million from the General Fund for the State Water Resources Control Board to set up a private domestic well assistance program, including grants and loans to address the needs of households whose wells have gone dry. This would have filled a critical gap in current drought relief efforts.
In addition to the vital funding that AB 954 would have provided, the bill would have created a more integrated state drinking water assistance program by placing it within the State Water Board. Although the State Water Board has mostly resisted inclusion of drinking water systems with less than 15 connections or individual household wells into its drinking water and financial assistance programs, it is the only agency with the expertise and experience to integrate drought relief with existing funding programs to create lasting drinking water solutions. Without centralized leadership of drinking water assistance programs, including household wells, our most vulnerable households will fall through the cracks and investment will continue to be haphazard and disjointed.
To date, the state has primarily placed the Department of Water Resources (DWR) and the Office of Emergency Services (CalOES) in charge of addressing individual well owners’ needs, but the drought programs established at DWR and CalOES have not sufficiently addressed the drinking water needs of individual well owners. CalOES’s administration of the drinking water emergency response has failed to provide adequate emergency assistance to over 75% of the households with dry wells. Specifically, CalOES has installed approximately 520 water tanks for hauled water deliveries, but California has over 2,500 reported well failures, and we know this number is a significant underestimate because neither CalOES, DWR, nor local counties are doing proactive outreach to assess needs.
Further, only five of the 39 counties with reported well failures have been able to put solutions in place – even interim ones. That means thousands of Californians are still waiting for basic emergency assistance from CalOES. And DWR has only just begun to distribute the $5 million it received in March specifically to assist private well owners.
The State Water Board has the expertise required to provide the support, oversight, funding, and reporting needed for a strong response to individual well owners’ needs. Californians with no running water need the state agency in charge of drinking water to house a program to address their needs.
Finally, drought-related funding streams must be directed to lasting solutions for communities. Though existing drought funding can and, on some occasions, has been used to implement long-term solutions, the state has failed to provide leadership to expedite construction of lasting solutions, particularly for communities without an existing centralized water system. The state should be using its emergency powers and funding to expedite drilling a new public well that can serve all the homes in a community, or consolidating private wells with neighboring public water systems, not just continuing to provide hauled or bottled water deliveries without an end game in sight.
Last summer, state funding moved very quickly to secure a long-term solution – a new community well – for the community of Seville. State funds should be able to move just as quickly to secure similar solutions for other communities this year, including those communities reliant on individual household wells. But we just haven’t seen that happen. AB 954 would have enabled the state to follow the example that it set in Seville.
In this coming last week of session, as we celebrate Labor Day, our state leaders should be working to resurrect the bipartisan program proposed in AB 954 to address the needs of the thousands of hard working Californians without running water.
Laurel Firestone is Co-Executive Director and Jenny Rempel is Communications & Development Coordinator with the Community Water Center, a non-profit whose mission is to act as a catalyst for community-driven water solutions through organizing, education, and advocacy in California’s San Joaquin Valley. Visit the Community Water Center online at www.CommunityWaterCenter.org.
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