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Environment & Science

California's spending on water is lacking, says PPIC; get ready to pass the hat

The newly-restored Tujunga Wash includes a small stream which aids in flood control and percolates water into an aquifer.
The newly-restored Tujunga Wash includes a small stream which aids in flood control and percolates water into an aquifer.
courtesy Kerjon Lee/LA County DPW

A new study from the Public Policy Institute of California finds “critical” funding shortages of as much as 10 percent for key elements of the state’s water system. And guess who's going to pay for those? In an 81-page report, PPIC authors suggest federal money for water projects is likely to diminish – so if there’s a need to pass the hat for more funding, water consumers -- including residential, farm and business interests -- are likely to foot the bill.

According to the math from the PPIC team, erasing the shortfall could mean an average increase in water rates of between $150 and $230 a year per household. Water and sewer bills, the authors write, are where most of the money for these systems come from (along with some specialized taxes and fees). 

The report issues aspects of California’s water system pass-fail grades. Drinking water systems and wastewater treatment systems are deemed fairly functional

Where the report see problems is with small and rural water systems, flood protection, stormwater pollution control, and aquatic ecosystems management. PPIC  characterizes the funding for those areas as inadequate.

There are around a dozen small, rural water systems in low-income communities in the southern part of the state.

Stormwater controls have been a focus of discussion in Southern California over the last several years, as regional requirements set by the EPA and some city ordinances have begun to promote “low-impact development” or “green infrastructure” – the development of systems that capture, treat, and store water as close to where it falls as possible.

The PPIC report concludes that local water agencies have stable funding for half of the total annual costs of meeting stormwater requirements. The authors estimate the shortfall will cost about $40 to $60 a household.

Supervisors for Los Angeles County considered a stormwater parcel tax last year.  L.A. County Public Works proposed to improve infrastructure managing stormwater, by capturing it and treating it for future use. But large landowners including schools criticized the way the fee would be levied. So did some cities, despite the fact that they have shared blame for dirty stormwater in legal actions. Eventually supervisors sent the proposal back to the Public Works drawing board

Even where water supply and wastewater funds are stable, PPIC sees inadequate funding for one aspect of supply that’s only likely to grow in importance in the future: cleaning contaminated groundwater. Whether it’s nitrates from fertilizer runoff, chromium 6, or other pollutants in underground aquifers, groundwater management is growing more costly.

That’s exactly the message local agencies in Southern California have been trying to send for years.  Just weeks ago, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti stood at the Tujunga Spreading Grounds to speak about the need to clean up groundwater, so aquifers can be used for storage.

PPIC suggests groundwater basins could be better managed by charging pumpers a fee based on how much they use, which is meant to cover the costs of recharging the aquifer. (That’s what Orange County Water District and the Water Replenishment District of Southern California already do.)

PPIC’s Ellen Hanak, University of California, Hastings law professor Brian Gray, and UC Davis researcher Jay Lund are the lead authors of the report.