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Separate, But Not Equal: Drinking Water Disparity in California

The first East Porterville, CA, residents to receive water through a state-designed distribution system. 8/19/16.

California Department of Water Resources
Aug 17, 2020


It’s hard to imagine that in a state known for its progressiveness, not all Californians have equal access to clean drinking water. In 2012, the state Legislature passed AB-685 as an attempt to bridge this clean water inaccessibility gap. The bill established “that every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water.” Unfortunately, this historic amendment to the water code did not expand any obligation of the state to provide water or to require the expenditure of additional resources to develop water infrastructure, so an estimated one million Californians still receive water that is unsafe to drink.

Seven years later, Governor Newsom signed SB-200, which created the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund designed “to help water systems provide an adequate and affordable supply of safe drinking water in both the near and long terms.” While some progress has been made towards achieving this goal, including the development of accessible tools and reporting mechanisms to help communities evaluate water systems and identify contaminants, residents of some regions of the state still lack access to safe drinking water. By far the greatest percentage of these drinking water insecure households are located throughout the Central Valley, in disadvantaged unincorporated communities or DUCs. These DUCs are typically semi-rural, low-income communities where the majority residents are people of color, making access to clean drinking water not only a health and environmental issue, but also one of equity and social justice.

The systemic inequalities that created drinking water insecurity for DUCs in California are typical of issues that affect low-income communities throughout the U.S.: exclusionary zoning and land use regulations combined with urban development practices, frequently exacerbated by lack of local government oversight and misdirected public funding. When under-resourced DUCs in the Central Valley were not incorporated as neighboring urban areas expanded, residents were unable to access functional municipal water and waste systems and the inequities continued.

The convergence of the Covid-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement have increased public awareness and discussions about the connection between social and environmental justice just at the moment public funding is on the decline. California’s drinking water fund is partially financed by the cap and trade program, which is currently experiencing a decrease in revenues, and significant budget cuts resulting from pandemic-related shortfalls are also expected. Although the state’s financial future is not as optimistic as it once was before Covid-19, equal access to clean water is still a priority–especially in this pandemic when frequent hand washing is required.

Stanford experts hosted a Twitter Chat and a briefing on how to make drinking water safe and affordable for all Californians, offering up some approaches with potential to improve both infrastructure and governance. They’ve also published additional research on California water quality, quantity and public health that provides insights into groundwater scarcity and contamination. Innovative financing in the water sector could help to address some of the roadblocks that prevent more public system incorporations of DUCs and close the gap between the haves and have nots.

Contact Information

Christine H. Black
Associate Director, Communications

Devon Ryan
Communications Manager

Rob Jordan
Editor / Senior Writer