One of the many lessons reinforced over the past year is the importance of reliable water service. From the crucial role water has played in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 to the dire consequences in Texas when water stopped flowing and was deemed unsafe following the unprecedented winter storm, the bottom line remains the same: Americans need and deserve safe water to flow to their taps.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the case for many Americans. Several recent studies have shone a light on what is a growing disparity between those who have access to safe water and those who have systems with repeated health violations and unreliable service.
Equal access for all Americans to high-quality water is an absolute necessity. And to achieve that goal, every water utility—whether they are government run systems or private companies like California Water Service (Cal Water)—should be held accountable for three things: investing responsibly in water system infrastructure, delivering quality water, and providing good value. These three expectations are inextricably linked, and only when they become reality for all Americans will we get closer to the goal of water equality.
The harsh reality is that our nation’s critical infrastructure faces significant challenges. The new national report card just released by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) paints a dim picture for our nation’s drinking water infrastructure, which earned a C- grade. In California, water and wastewater infrastructure faired only slightly better, earning a C and C+ respectively. Moreover, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that, over the next 20 years, California has a $51 billion drinking water infrastructure funding gap.
Investment in water and wastewater infrastructure—from replacing older water pipes to upgrading water treatment facilities—is one of the best ways to ensure safe water and reliable service. When infrastructure is allowed to deteriorate, the consequences are serious. Water main breaks result in flooding, damage, and wasted water. Sewage spills into waterways. Infrastructure is not resilient enough to withstand natural disasters. In a worst-case scenario, you end up with a massive failure like the one in Flint, Michigan, where the government-run system completely failed the residents it served.
That is why Cal Water has invested $844 million over the past three years to ensure our infrastructure remains strong and resilient, and we will continue to prioritize strategic investment to ensure customers can count on reliable water service as we prepare for droughts and the impacts of climate change.
Infrastructure investment is also critical to ensuring the delivery of high-quality water. According to the State Water Resources Control Board’s 2021 Needs Assessment, more than $10 billion is needed over the next five years to implement interim and long-term solutions.
Customers shouldn’t have to wonder whether the water they drink is safe and meets all quality standards. Yet, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), approximately 4,800 community water systems nationwide are violating a health-based standard, and more than 1,200 are in significant violation. A failing system elsewhere raises concerns and distrust everywhere.
A 2018 analysis of EPA data from 1982-2015 published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that water companies have done a better job meeting federal drinking water health and safety standards than their government-run counterparts. That confirmed prior research that concludes water companies are 24% less likely to violate the Safe Drinking Water Act than government-run water utilities.
At Cal Water, our water quality experts conduct more than 400,000 water quality tests every year, testing for more than 300 contaminants in a state-certified, state-of-the-art lab. That averages out to more than 1,000 tests every single day. Simply put, nothing is more important to our team of water company professionals than ensuring your water is safe to drink and use.
ValueSafe water doesn’t just magically appear at your home. Between the time the water is captured from its original source to the time it arrives at the faucet, it goes through miles of water infrastructure. It is rigorously treated by operations professionals and tested by chemists and water quality experts. Once it is deemed safe, it then flows through more infrastructure on the way to homes, businesses, and schools.
All of this comes at a cost. Unfortunately, there are far too many stories that show the negative repercussions from keeping rates artificially low to the point they are unable to support the necessary investment. When investment is deferred, water quality and reliability suffer.
But a water utility can and should be expected to operate as efficiently as possible to keep costs down and to communicate with its customers about the investments it is making. It should also be allowed to offer assistance to customers who cannot afford their water bill. Cal Water was the first water utility in California to voluntarily suspend water shutoffs during the pandemic, and we offer a discount program for low-income customers as well as no-interest payment extensions and other support.
To ensure all water utilities are held to the same high standard, some states have put in place water quality accountability measures that cover everything from reporting requirements and cybersecurity safeguards to infrastructure management and maintenance. By holding all utilities more accountable for the quality of the water they deliver to their customers, we will be able to take a step toward water equality in our country for all Americans.
– By Martin A. Kropelnicki