Eileen Wray-McCann: I’m Eileen Wray-McCann for Circle of Blue. This is Speaking of Water, a look into vital water topics that often flow beneath the surface of the daily headlines. I’m here with Dr. Peter Gleick, co-founder and President Emeritus of the Pacific Institute, a leading resource for water data analysis and scholarship. Peter serves on the Circle of Blue Board of Trustees from his base in California, where Governor Gavin Newsom just signed a bill directing some $130 million to improve access to clean drinking water for many state residents. Welcome Peter.
Dr. Peter Gleick: Happy to be here, Eileen.
Eileen Wray-McCann: Peter, why have so many people in California been without clean drinking water?
Dr. Peter Gleick: Obviously in the United States we’re blessed mostly with an incredibly great water and sanitation system that’s been built over 150 years with better and better technology. And so most of us take fresh water and sanitation for granted. We turn on the water in the morning in the faucet and incredibly great potable water comes out, and we flush our toilet and it magically disappears to some treatment plant that we don’t even know exists. But the reality is that even in this country, there are many, many people without access to what most of us think of as safe, affordable, clean water and sanitation.
And that’s populations in cities like Flint, Michigan, where their urban water systems have decayed or not been maintained. Or populations in the Central Valley of California, the rural populations that are drinking water from wells that might be contaminated with agricultural chemicals, in fact we know are contaminated with agricultural chemicals. Or the populations around the U.S. that are homeless at the moment that don’t have access to safe water and sanitation there. It turns out that we here in the United States also have a problem with providing water and sanitation for our entire population.
Eileen Wray-McCann: So everything from aging infrastructures to the expense of the systems. And in California there’re about 326 agencies serving nearly a million people that apparently were out of compliance with the state standards. And as you mentioned that doesn’t even include private wells.
Dr. Peter Gleick: I would be a little bit careful about that number. It’s been a popular number in the press, a million people without safe water. What that really is is the population of the water agencies that at one time or another may have reported that they were temporarily out of compliance with federal standards or state standards. It’s not as though those people never have access to safe water or their water is always contaminated. All of our water systems, when we have modern water systems, are tested pretty regularly. And sometimes a piece of equipment fails, sometimes there’s a temporary problem and they detect it and they notify their customers. That’s a totally appropriate thing to do.
There are, however, probably a couple of hundred thousand people in California that all the time don’t have access to safe water and sanitation. So it’s still a very large number. The number ought to be zero, but it’s still a large number. And there are people in rural areas or people connected to very small water systems that are difficult to operate or break down a lot. Or people who live in the countryside and take water from a well and that well just may not have safe water and they may not know it. Those are big unresolved difficulties in California and elsewhere.
Eileen Wray-McCann: Well, how does the California law intend to improve the drinking water? What mechanisms will it fund?
Dr. Peter Gleick: Well, so the bad news is that we’ve had this problem for a long time and we haven’t been able to find the money or the institutional management structures to fix it. And that’s unconscionable. The Pacific Institute wrote a report about nitrate contamination in groundwater many years ago, describing some of the populations without access to safe water in the Central Valley of California. But the new law finally provides a pretty stable source of money. It’s about a hundred million dollars a year for fixing this problem, for building water systems that work for these rural populations, for combining small water systems into bigger water systems that are maybe more able to have the financial and engineering resources to provide safe water, to do more testing, to provide infrastructure in people’s homes to help them access safe water and sanitation. It’s not clear yet exactly how the money will be spent because they have to sort of figure out where the worst problems are and what the right fixes are, but it is for the first time a stable source of money to tackle this problem and I think that’s a good thing.
Eileen Wray-McCann: Now I hear that there’s some controversy about where the money’s going to come from. The governor originally wanted to impose a clean water fee, but instead the state’s going to divert the money from revenue that was intended for climate change initiatives. Could you talk about why that happened and what it might mean for the larger picture?
Dr. Peter Gleick: Yeah, I’d be happy to talk about the money piece of this. It has been controversial. If you think about how we fund our water systems anywhere, but the money comes from a lot of different places. 150 years ago, 120 years ago when our cities were starting to build our big water systems, they sold and they still sell municipal bonds. Cities have the ability to write bonds and there’s a tax advantage to buying municipal bonds. And so we sold municipal bonds to build roads and energy systems and especially our water systems. That’s one way that some of these systems have been funded. Another way they’re funded is you and I pay a water bill to a utility that provides us with a service. I have a water utility here, they provide me with safe water and they take my waste water and they charge me. I pay a monthly bill that covers the cost of building the infrastructure and operating the infrastructure that’s needed to meet my water and sanitation needs. And that’s what a lot of us do. And that’s in fact where most of the money for our water systems comes from.
But there are other sources of money as well, and there are water needs for which there is no source of money. Like some of these rural communities that maybe aren’t on a public water system and don’t pay a water bill, but still have access only to contaminated water, or disadvantaged communities that simply can’t afford to pay for the technology upgrades or the infrastructure upgrades that are needed. And so we’ve been wrestling with how do you find money for those kinds of things.
One of the things the state has done in the past is we’ve sold big bonds. We’ve passed big bond measures, really multibillion dollar bond measures to pay for dams and wetlands’ restoration and coastal water infrastructure and conservation and efficiency programs, and a little bit to pay for some of these disadvantaged communities. But the public doesn’t always like to vote for these bonds. They’re sometimes wasteful. They go to multiple purposes and where the money goes is always a big fight. There’s never been a sustainable source of money for this.
The best idea, and this is a personal opinion, the best idea would be a little fee on every water user. Like we now charge a little fee on every telephone, cell phone user, or every energy user, to pay for basic needs for certain kinds of cell phone technology or for energy infrastructure. So all of us who use water in the ag sector, the urban sector, could pay a tiny little fee on our water bills that would fund this kind of money. And that’s what the governor tried to do and some legislators tried to do, but it was described as a water tax and it was politically not possible to pass that. And so the governor tried something else, which is tapping into California’s Cap-and-Trade fund. We have a climate law here that provides some revenue based on how much carbon emitters emit. And the more carbon you emit, the more you pay into this little fund. And that fund is supposed to go toward climate mitigation and climate adaptation. And it produces quite a bit of money, three or $400 million a year or more. And that’s what the governor tapped into for this water fee.
Now part of the argument was, “Well some of the things that we do in the water world can actually help mitigate the impacts of climate change by cutting our energy use, or can make our water systems more resilient to climate change.” So the argument was made it’s not entirely unrelated to climate, but there are some in the environmental community who think, “Well we really ought to reserve that money for very clearly climate-specific projects.” But that’s been the political fight, as often there’s a political fight over all of these things.
Eileen Wray-McCann: Well, you bring up a good point because some of the lawmakers expressed varying opinions on the interconnections between climate change and water. What I was wondering about is when the Circle of Blue does its reporting and coverage of water issues, it’s hard to do so without bringing in climate issues. If you were to advise legislators on how water does relate to climate, what would you tell them?
Dr. Peter Gleick: Well, the Institute and I and my colleagues have told them these things for many, many years that water and climate are fundamentally related. The climate cycle and the hydrologic cycle are part and parcel of the same thing, that the science has been good for a long time telling us that climate change will have very important implications, adverse implications, for the hydrologic cycle, for snowpack, for snowmelt, for heat, for evaporation, for loss from our reservoirs, for water management overall. And that frankly, very simply, if we don’t manage our water system for tomorrow’s climate, that the water system we have which was designed for yesterday’s climate isn’t going to work very well. So we have to think about climate when we think about water, and we have to think about water when we think about climate.
And the same thing is true for energy. And again, Circle of Blue has done a great job on this, looking at and writing about for a long time. The energy-water nexus, there are very strong connections between energy and water. It takes water to produce and move and treat energy. It takes energy to produce and move and treat our water. And there are important things that we can do to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions from our water system if we were smarter and more aggressive about doing that. It’s not entirely inappropriate that the governor look to this climate fund to fund some of the water needs of the state. But again, it would be nice if there were a fee on all water users to fund all of our water needs. In part because the more we pay for water, the more incentive there is for those of us who pay that fee to be more efficient and more careful in our own use of that water.
Eileen Wray-McCann: A lot of factors involved. Well, thank you so much, Peter. That’s great food for thought and I look forward to talking to you again soon.
Dr. Peter Gleick: Thank you, Eileen. It’s always a pleasure.
Eileen Wray-McCann: That was Dr. Peter Gleick, co-founder and President Emeritus of the Pacific Institute on Speaking of Water, on Circle of Blue. I’m Eileen Wray-McCann. Thanks for listening in.
Eileen Wray-McCann is a writer, director and narrator who co-founded Circle of Blue. During her 13 years at Interlochen Public Radio, a National Public Radio affiliate in Northern Michigan, Eileen produced and hosted regional and national programming. She’s won Telly Awards for her scriptwriting and documentary work, and her work with Circle of Blue follows many years of independent multimedia journalistic projects and a life-long love of the Great Lakes. She holds a BA and MA radio and television from the University of Detroit. Eileen is currently moonlighting as an audio archivist and enjoys traveling through time via sound.