About 1 Million Californians Lack Access to Safe Drinking Water, Auditor Says

By Alice Sun
Alice Sun
Alice Sun
July 28, 2022 Updated: July 29, 2022

The water systems serving nearly a million residents in California do not meet water quality standards, and the State Water Board lacks urgency in providing timely assistance, according to a report released by the state auditor on July 26.

The audit found that more than 370 water systems—serving more than 920,000 residents—are failing, and hundreds of additional systems are at risk of failing.

A water system is defined by the board as a water supplier providing for at least 15 residences or at least 25 people daily for 60 days or more out of the year.

The auditor recommended that the board speed up the funding applications process and better monitor the service quality of its technical assistance providers.

“The longer the board takes to fund projects, the more expensive those projects become. More importantly, delays increase the likelihood of negative health outcomes for Californians served by the failing water systems,” acting state auditor Michael Tilden wrote in a letter to the Legislature.

Residents negatively impacted might develop long-term diseases such as skin damage or circulatory problems and face increased risks for kidney and liver problems and even cancer, according to Tilden.

“As their water quality worsens, or their water dries up altogether, struggling water systems will urgently need funding and solutions from the [board]. Any delays will expose even more Californians to unsafe drinking water,” Tilden wrote.

Between 2016 to 2021, the board was awarded $1.7 billion in grants for building infrastructure. However, the time needed for funding applications to be submitted and approved grew to about 33 months in 2021—nearly doubled from 17 months in 2017, according to the report.

The recommendations for the board include eliminating unnecessary documents in the funding application process, revising its credit review process, and fast-tracking urgent projects for failing systems.

In response to these findings, board executive director Eileen Sobeck said in a letter that the board did act with urgency to provide safe drinking water to Californians and has reduced the population impact by failing water systems by 40 percent—from 1.6 million to 934,000—over a 3-year period since 2019.

“We have made great strides in improving how we do our work,” she said. “The Board recognizes the report’s recommendations are an opportunity to assess areas for further improvement.”

Alice Sun