Two bills aimed at protecting small towns mired in debt, drinking water contamination and dropping groundwater levels have become law.
Senate Bill 3, authored by state Senator Bill Dodd (D-Napa,) extends water shutoff protections to households in communities with less than 200 water connections. That includes a handful of towns in the San Joaquin Valley such as Fairmead, Cantua Creek, El Porvenir and Tooleville, among others.
Assembly Bill 664, authored by state Assemblymember Alex Lee (D-San Jose,) requires landlords to either accept a state-funded water connection in situations where small systems are consolidated with larger ones or provide their own source of reliable drinking water.
Many small communities, particularly in the valley, are low income and burdened with some of the highest water rates in the state. SB 3 protects residents from losing access to water because of the inability to pay water bills and extends the Water Shutoff Protection Act, which was approved in 2018.
Without this extension, residents could have their water shut off immediately without notification after missing a bill and without the chance to enroll in a payment plan, said Michael Claiborne, directing attorney for nonprofit Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, a sponsor of the bill.
The high cost of water in disadvantaged communities is a pressing issue for many residents.
The small, farmworker town of El Porvenir in rural Fresno County, has some of the highest water bills in the state at nearly $300 per month, said Claiborne. The state subsidizes some of that which brings bills down to a little more than $110, he added.
“On average, that’s still very expensive,” said Claiborne.
AB 664 targets a more specific situation.
The state Water Resources Control Board has the authority to mandate water system consolidation. That means it can force a larger community with a stable water source to connect a nearby smaller community that’s struggling. Sometimes those connections are also voluntary.
But in some cases, landlords in small towns could decide not to hook up to a more stable water system.
That can be a problem when there is unreliable and contaminated groundwater.
“If well owners don’t test or treat their wells, there isn’t much a renter can do, especially since there is no state or federal law requiring that tenants have access to safe drinking water,” wrote a spokesperson from Assemblymember Lee’s office via email. “We wanted to enact policy that would help make a dent in this issue by focusing on our most vulnerable populations.”
In Tombstone, outside of Sanger in Fresno County, residents rely on domestic wells that have repeatedly gone dry during drought years. A project to consolidate with the City of Sanger was agreed upon in 2019. But the project is still ongoing and has been repeatedly delayed.
One reason for delays was because of unresponsive landlords, said Claiborne.
“Often, landlords don’t live in the community. And they’re not responsive to outreach around connecting to water systems, connecting to the public service after it’s extended. And that leaves renters in a pretty poor position,” said Claiborne. “There really isn’t any justification for that landlord not to connect.”
Now, landlords will be required to either agree to connect or must test their wells and treat their wells if necessary. If a stable water supply isn’t provided by landlords who choose not to connect, the state water board does have authority to carry out enforcement action, wrote Lee’s spokesperson.
Unresponsive landlords have already taken a toll on progress.
In Tombstone, Leadership Counsel needed to obtain agreements from enough landowners to show the state Water Board for the connection project to proceed. But one landlord who owns four properties there, didn’t respond for a year and a half, said Claiborne, delaying the project significantly. Eventually, he did agree to participate in the connection project.
“There are cases where it would be helpful for the state to be saying, ‘there are consequences for not agreeing to sign up for this project now,’” said Claiborne.