California has never been more desperate for federal funds to build water infrastructure, and the State’s 42nd district, represented by House Appropriations Interior and Environment Subcommittee Chairman Ken Calvert, is no exception. Located in southern California and including parts of western Riverside County, portions of this district have struggled for years with an unreliable and at times unsafe water supply. In one community bordering Wildomar and Menifee, for example, the water supply had for more than a decade contained unhealthy nitrate levels. Years ago, State health officials advised residents against consuming the water because of dangerous levels of impurities, and in 2012 County Water of Riverside (CWR), a privately owned water company then serving the roughly 140 homes in this underprivileged section of northeastern Wildomar, missed a California Department of Public Health deadline to remedy the unsafe drinking water situation. CWR’s well was in such a state of disrepair that the water drawn from it contained more than twice the legal level of nitrates, rendering it unsafe for consumption or use. Residents at the time stated that “most of the time, the water looks like milk.” Municipal authorities had long been aware of the problem, but as one official was then quoted as saying, “We need to get the government entities together. We’re not trying to send someone to the moon. The big question is, ‘Who will pay?’”
The good news is that after years of subjecting residents to unsafe water, the well company’s owners finally agreed to relinquish control, allowing two districts – with the help of local government officials – to take control of the area and begin work on new water lines to service the community. The State of California, alerted to the problem through the involvement of State health officials monitoring the contamination levels, provided critical funding. Now those water districts are extending new systems to the affected households, with Eastern Municipal Water District laying pipes to serve about 35 households on the Menifee side of the community, and the Elsinore Valley Municipal Water District extending service to about 115 households on the Wildomar side.
This remedy would not have been possible without the nearly $6 million in financing provided by the State of California, but State funding is simply not a reliable solution in a state like California, which ranks first among all states in the EPA’s survey of identified water infrastructure needs (see below) and which faces historically persistent drought conditions. The state solution, while it addressed the acute, short term crisis in Wildomar, was ultimately insufficient because it failed to address the long term problems posed by California’s neglected water infrastructure and drought.
California has its hands full with drought-related issues. The Department of Water Resources recently stated, for example, that as a result of the historic drought, public water agencies serving residents of the State might only receive 10 percent of expected supplies in 2016, half the amount that flowed to them in 2015 through the state’s system of reservoirs and canals. In 2015, State water customers received 20 percent of their contracted amounts, and State officials say they hope the 2016 allocation will increase as rain and snow fall. But they also considered the possibility that drought could drag on another year. A variety of infrastructure projects could help Californians cope with drought conditions, including construction of desalination plants, water system facility improvements, greater surface and groundwater storage, water recycling and water treatment technology, improvements in water supply management and conveyance systems, and repair and replacement of emergency water supply systems. But these public works projects are enormously expensive, and the State simply cannot cope with the costs of completing these kinds of projects and helping local communities like Wildomar repair and replace outdated infrastructure posing health risks to residents. Federal assistance, including State Revolving Fund (SRF) appropriations, must increase now to ensure that residents like those in California’s 42nd District are protected not only from drought-related water scarcity, but the dangers of contaminated water from aging infrastructure.
State SRF allotments are determined based on the EPA’s periodic Needs Survey and Assessment, in which individual states’ water systems estimate their capital costs for all water infrastructure projects eligible to be included in the Survey; these include projects needed currently and those needed over the next 20 years. California receives the largest allocation of SRFs of all states. In the most recent Drinking Water SRF allotments, for example (based on the 2011 Needs Assessment), California had more than 9 percent of all allocations, nearly twice the next largest allocation (New York), illustrating that California’s water infrastructure needs are demonstrable and enormous. The crisis in Wildomar is just one example of situations arising all over California, including Congressman Calvert’s 42nd District. SRF appropriations must be increased to help fund the construction of new service lines to California communities whose water systems are in desperate need of repair and replacement. The need to protect Californians against contaminated water is a critical one, and Congressman Calvert’s Subcommittee must act to meet this need by increasing SRF appropriations.