Equipping All Communities with Safe, Reliable Drinking Water

By Katie Porter, Executive Engineer at Brown and Caldwell

Katie Porter is an Executive Engineer for Brown and Caldwell, a full-service environmental engineering and construction firm. Ms. Porter also serves as a staff engineer for the California Urban Water Agencies, a non-profit organization of eleven major urban water agencies that collectively serve about two thirds of California’s urban population.

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Nearly a million people in California receive low quality drinking water from underperforming water systems, which are challenged by drought, overdrafting, and emerging contaminants. Root causes of poor water quality can include inadequate treatment technology, operational issues, and insufficient personnel and financial capacity.

Early Impact Can Be Achieved by Focusing on the Most Severely Impacted Systems

The vast majority of drinking water systems in California have no violations. By focusing on small water systems that do have multiple violations, there is opportunity for significant positive impact. Nearly 700,000 Californians are served by small public water systems with one or more water quality violations in the last five years. Of these, 150 systems collectively serving over 137,000 people have had persistent violations, defined for the purpose of this analysis as ongoing health-based violations in 12 or more quarters between 2013 and 2017. There are 29 small public systems, serving 200 or more connections each, and each with persistent violations as defined above, which are responsible for delivering water to about 80% of the population in this subset. In addition, new and pending regulation for contaminants such as 1,2,3-TCP and hexavalent chromium are likely to bring more systems into non-compliance, unless action is taken.

Persistent violations are an indicator of underperforming systems, and focusing on this subset can create early outcomes, allow us to learn as we begin this work, and help us test and refine workable models. The California Urban Water Agencies (CUWA) and Pacific Institute are co-principal investigators for a Water Research Foundation (WRF) project seeking to immediately increase water accessibility for users of California’s small systems and for the rural communities most impacted by poor water quality. The findings from this work may also be applicable to other states wrestling with similar challenges.

Funding & Support for Solutions

There is a gap in perception about the effectiveness of grant and Technical Assistance (TA) programs currently administered by the State either directly to a water system applicant, or through third party assistance organizations. State Water Board staff and some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) perceive that deployment of grants and TA are effective when it is targeted to address a specific issue or community. Many small water system officials and service providers perceive the opposite and feel the grant process takes too long and Division of Financial Assistance is unresponsive. This is an area for alignment of expectations and/or streamlining to advance more rapid progress.

Improving water quality is more than choosing a technical solution. Community alignment and support, and political willingness are critical elements that need to be combined with technical solutions to allow systems to thrive.  For example, consolidating a number of small water systems in the state would provide benefits of economies of scale. However, there is often resistance to systems consolidation due to the political difficulty of combining systems, and the fear of losing autonomy.

Once the right institutional and funding support systems are in place, we collectively need to choose and implement the most viable technical solutions for each system. Every system is unique, and some systems may require an immediate solution, while others may require a series of solutions implemented over several years. California has engaged in a variety of these approaches to meet the unique needs of the areas served by small water systems.

The State Water Resources Control Board (State Water Board) has begun a Statewide Needs Assessment for California, slated for completion in 2021. In addition, the recent authorization of the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund (Senate Bill 200) provides $130 million a year for 10 years to help local water systems provide safe, reliable drinking water to communities across California and begin closing the safe drinking water gap. This action provides funding to assist small systems with operations and maintenance (O&M), and capital improvements. The previous lack of O&M funding was a significant barrier for many systems, and the above referenced needs analysis will help determine how to best allocate these funds.

As part of the WRF project, the research team conducted a Thought Leaders Workshop in May 2019 to gather partner and stakeholder input on potential innovative approaches, including treatment technologies and operational strategies. The 37 workshop participants from more than 20 organizations represented a range of backgrounds, perspectives, and expertise. The State Water Board’s preliminary work on the needs assessment lent some ideas and experience to the WRF workshop.

Participant Perspectives

Participants shared ideas to collectively promote safe drinking water in small systems. The discussions revolved around regional planning, outreach and collaboration, economies of scale, data analysis, and regulatory improvements. Some actionable ideas emerged, such as:

  • Build capacity within existing structures to support collaborative regional and county planning for sustainable drinking water systems
  • Promote understanding and cross-sector collaboration
  • Pursue economies of scale and identify thresholds
  • Drive outcomes and track progress, with transparency
  • Improve regulatory framework to remove obstacles, streamline programs, and close loopholes

Utilizing Technical Strategies to Support Overarching Goals

Four types of technical strategies, used either independently or in conjunction with each other, can be used to progress these ideas.

Partnership Strategies

A significant cause of underperformance is the economic disadvantage of operating a small water system due to economies of scale. Fixed costs of delivering safe drinking water (e.g., staff, infrastructure) can be significant. Assuming all else is equal, it costs more per customer to operate a small system than a larger one because there are not enough customers to bear fixed costs. Grants and low interest loans are available to subsidize some of these costs, but the most sustainable solution is the establishment of a sustainable rate base, potentially through consolidation, for ongoing operations and capital improvements.

Physical consolidation (physically interconnecting systems), administrative consolidation (consolidating system management while keeping physical infrastructure separate), pooling purchasing power for chemicals or spare parts, mutual aid agreements between systems to assist each other as needs arise, and capacity building are partnering tools to strengthen existing systems and optimize capital improvement investments. For communities lacking technical, managerial, and financial capacity, the State could act more aggressively to deny permits to create new water systems. Regional collaboration and/or consolidation could be advanced by further exploring incentives, barriers, and mitigating factors, as well as understanding relative long-term costs of separate versus consolidated system operation.

Operational Strategies

Collective operation and maintenance spending can be optimized by investing in new technologies, such as remote monitoring and automation. Approaches such as using contract operators and remote operations can provide the flexibility for a single operator to assist multiple systems and/or more efficiently spend any allotted time tending to critical system needs.  Further dialogue could explore the potential for these technology applications to significantly improve access while reducing life-cycle costs and increasing transparency and ability to react on compliance and operational challenges.

Treatment Strategies

Optimization of existing facilities can often be more cost effective than building new treatment facilities. Physical optimization can include process, mechanical, and structural improvements with the intent to not just meet but go beyond compliance requirements. Previously the lack of financial support programs for O&M made it challenging for systems to consider optimization when funds were more available for capital solutions such as new treatment facilities.

Some systems have turned to Point-of-Use/Point-of-Entry (POU/POE) treatment technologies in lieu of a full-scale treatment process.  POU/POE has been limited to temporary emergency applications in California and requires 100% community agreement. Some regions have used waivers and “opt-out” options, such as Monterey County and the state of Arizona. For more permanent applications to even be considered, reasonable lifecycle system costs and effective remote monitoring for compliance would need to be demonstrated.

Source Water Strategies

Additional or alternative sources of water are beneficial for some systems when the operational or treatment solutions for the main available water source are challenging or cost-prohibitive. Assuming sufficient capacity, neighboring drinking water systems can provide treated water or a new raw water source that may need less treatment than the original source. Water from a nearby irrigation district or recycled water could replace non-potable or irrigation needs. Though there are advantages to connecting with a new source that already meets existing standards, it can be cost prohibitive to construct the infrastructure needed to connect depending on distance. Irrigation water would likely need additional treatment before it can be used for potable uses or to recharge drinking water aquifers, which could be a financial barrier.

Break the Cycle

Despite widespread awareness of the challenges facing small water systems, new unsustainable systems continue to be constructed. These types of systems typically meet immediate needs through developer funds or State grants and loans, but do not have the appropriate management and financial structures or plans in place to continue long-term provision of safe drinking water without significant intervention. While growth must be accommodated, the key is to prevent new unsustainable systems from forming.  Creating stronger coordination between State entities responsible for permitting new water systems and local land use planning authorities is an important first step.

Taking action to address the root causes of underperforming systems, while also preventing new unsustainable systems, can break the cycle of subpar drinking water. Top actions for early impact include:

  • Prioritize small systems with persistent water quality challenges
  • Strengthen policies to minimize the formation of new unsustainable small systems
  • Encourage water agencies to partner with state and local governments to assess potential service area expansions
  • Support pilot efforts to form joint mutual aid or technical assistance partnerships that establish clear selection and matching criteria, expectations for involvement, and integration with capacity building best practices
  • Support pilot efforts implementing remote operating systems coupled with contract operation oversight to confirm technology effectiveness and establish a regional implementation program framework
  • Be mindful of pending and future concerns with emerging contaminants

The State Water Board is now embarking on implementation of the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund. The incorporation of the above ideas can help achieve the desired progress.  Finding solutions for today’s challenges and the emerging concerns of the future will require new approaches if we are to achieve lasting, cost-effective, reliable water service, and ensure that water security for communities is within reach.


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1 Comment

  1. Katie – great article and ultimately the systemic changes you describe cannot be avoided. However, I wondered if there has been any consideration to localized water from air as a short term “household by household” fix, at least for drinking water needs. See, for example https://www.zeromasswater.com/discover-the-future-of-water/ . Although I stress I have no knowledge of the company or its technology, from their website, at least, the product would seem to be ideally suited to Central and Imperial Valley weather, these locales being where many of the quality issues arise.


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