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Report: Many in the Central Valley lack safe drinking water

Push for Safe Drinking Water
Posted at 4:58 PM, Jul 27, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-27 21:57:06-04

KERN COUNTY, Calif. (KERO) — Safe drinking water. Something that many of us take for granted. But for nearly a million Californians -- many of them in the Central Valley -- the reality is much different. A new report found the water many need for drinking, cooking, and bathing is contaminated.

The issue according to the California State Auditor is that the board in charge of overseeing those water systems is acting too slowly in helping clean them up.

This situation impacts nearly a million people out of the 39 million living in California. But what was interesting to see, was that when the report laid out the areas most affected in California it identified five counties where 66% of the people affected live. Kern County is among those affected, as is the whole Central Valley.

"All Californians, I mean everyone, should have access to clean safe drinking water, and clearly with the numbers we are talking about, almost a million people in California, don’t have access to safe clean drinking water. So clearly that needs to change," said Michael Tilden, the acting California State Auditor.

But there is definitely a hot spot concentrated in the Central Valley.

"Those issues are related to drought or related to over-pumping their industrial, related to industrial pollution and pollution from agriculture and at times they're related to just occurring," explained Michael Claiborne, the directing attorney for the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability.

Californians lack safe drinking water

Claiborne said they have been seeing contamination for years now.

"We see nitrate contamination, arsenic contamination, uranium 123, TCP - there's a long list of, so we see pretty frequently impacting communities."

The report lays out nearly 400 water systems facing these types of contaminations that are exceeding minimum contaminate levels for safe drinking water.

"You don’t want your primary source of drinking water to keep polluted for a long time because there are severe health outcomes from liver and kidney damage to cancer that can come as a result," said John Lewis with the California State Auditor.

But the issue is not money. The audit team says the state has allocated $1.4 billion. But the application process to fix them is lengthy and confusing, taking on average three years to process.

The state has contracted people to help communities with applications but the state auditor says it’s not happening fast enough.

"Currently the state only has 9 of these technical assistance providers, and these are primarily non-profits and public universities, so that is kind of the backdrop," said Tilden. "There are hundreds of failing water systems. There is only 9 technical assistance providers."

The report highlights Kern County as one of the areas where the assistance provider method did not work.

"In Kern County, these providers that were working there just didn't submit the information that they were supposed to submit and that is the problem," explained Lewis. "It's not something that we noted was widespread but we called it out because it's pretty simple."

The audit did give the State Water Resources Control Board a list of recommendations to fix this issue with the main takeaway being finding ways to streamline the application process and get these systems fixed among others. But because that will take time, local leaders can request water bottles for communities.

"It's not a great solution. It's kind of a band-aid but it's something that can be implemented quickly. What we try to do is get bottled water delivered on a regular basis, so folks don't have to go out and buy bottles of water," said Tilden.

Meanwhile, the State Water Resources Control Board that oversees the systems did respond to the report saying while they acknowledge there are improvements to be made they point out that since the governor signed SB 200 in 2019, they have been able to provide $50 million in urgent assistance to almost 10,000 households and 150 water systems experiencing outages due to drought, contamination and failing infrastructure among other programs.

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