Last minute loan keeps drinking water projects afloat

September 22, 2020
by Lois Henry
Lois Henry

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Small, failing drinking water systems got a funding life preserver among a flurry of budget bills at the chaotic end of the California legislative session.

Drinking water advocates had fretted the Safe and Affordable Funding for Equity and Resilience (SAFER) program, intended to help struggling water systems in mostly poor, rural areas, would fall victim to the pandemic-flattened economy.

But a last minute loan from the Underground Storage Tank Clean-Up Fund will ensure SAFER receives its full $130 million — at least this coming fiscal year.

The state has a slew of small, failing drinking water systems, many in low-income, rural areas, where residents don’t have the money to pay for necessary upkeep and repairs.

State and federal grants have been sporadic, at best, which has left troubled systems to fester for decades, in some cases.

At least one-third of those failing systems are in the San Joaquin Valley, according to the State Water Resources Control Board.

The SAFER program was passed in 2019 to provide ongoing funding, which those systems could apply for on a regular basis.

But the funding came from the Cap-and-Trade program, which gets its money from new and expanding businesses.

Businesses that emit greenhouse gases buy carbon “credits” through Cap-and-Trade and that money is used to pay for a host of  programs intended to reduce California’s overall greenhouse gas emissions.

The SAFER program was added to that list.

Then business growth and expansion ran headfirst into a COVID-19 wall and Cap-and-Trade credit auctions went from raising up to $850 million a quarter to $25 million in May.

“This is a reminder of how critical it is to have a sustainable funding source,” Jonathan Nelson, policy director for Community Water Center, a clean water advocacy group centered in the San Joaquin Valley, told SJV Water last month.

The State Water Resources Control Board worked quickly to come up with a way to back fill for the Cap-and-Trade money, which came from the Underground Storage Tank Fee this year.

“The state board moved remarkably fast for a large government agency and that was really encouraging,” Nelson said. “But the constant reality we’re working in is that communities don’t have safe water and they haven’t for years, decades even.”

Such instability is one of the reasons Assembly member Vince Fong, R-Bakersfield, continues to oppose using Cap-and-Trade money to fund SAFER.

He also opposed a previous approach that would have funded SAFER through a water tax applied to all consumers’ bills. Instead, Fong and other Republicans advocated for funding to be dedicated out of the state’s general fund.

“It should be a budget priority, and I have long advocated for it to be a budget priority,” Fong said in an email.

Meanwhile, the first set of SAFER projects were approved in July. They included only a handful of Central Valley drinking water systems.

This round of funding went to projects that were “shovel ready,” said Jessi Snyder, a community development specialist with Self-Help Enterprises, a community development nonprofit focused on housing and water issues in the San Joaquin Valley.

Most of the nearly 40 SAFER projects received around $2 million to $4 million each.

Self-Help received the largest grant, $20 million.

It will use the money to provide technical assistance to numerous small systems in disadvantaged communities.

Often these small systems don’t have the means to hire engineers, attorneys, planners, etc.

“Our proposal allows us to work hard and fast on the planning and design phase, but not construction,” Snyder said.

The systems will have to apply separately for construction funding.

SJV Water is an independent, nonprofit news site dedicated to covering water in the San Joaquin Valley. Get inside access to SJV Water by becoming a member.

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