June 8, 2017
State considers four options as it designs nation’s first statewide affordability program.
By Brett Walton, Circle of Blue –
Nearly five years ago, the California Legislature declared that the state’s residents have a right to “safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water.” Passage of the landmark law provoked a practical question that has always dogged the noble ideals of the right-to-water movement: how does a state government or municipal utility ensure clean and affordable water for all?
The need in California appears urgent. Water bills are a large and growing burden on the state’s poor. The price of water in San Francisco increased by double digits in six of the last seven years, according to the latest national assessment by Circle of Blue. In Fresno, the state’s most destitute big city, water rates rose 15 percent in the last year. San Diego water users paid more than 6 percent more for water in 2017 than the year before, a price increase much larger than the rate of inflation.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines affordable drinking water as no more than 2.5 percent of median household income. A 2013 study found that 23 percent of households in the Sacramento metropolitan region had monthly water bills that exceeded 2 percent of household income.
Bit by bit, California lawmakers have chipped at the affordability problem. In 2014 they passed a water bond, approved by voters, that directs $US 260 million in grants and loans for drinking water systems. Two years ago legislators set up a process for consolidating small, financially struggling systems with larger, better managed utilities. They mapped utilities that fail water quality standards and are exploring ways to use state funds to subsidize system operations and maintenance in rural areas.
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