I’m Eileen Wray-McCann for Circle of Blue, and this is “What’s Up With Water,” your need-to-know news of the world’s water, made possible by support from people like you.

In the Caribbean, residents of St. Vincent are struggling to find clean water after volcanic eruptions on the island earlier this month. The Associated Press reports that ash from La Soufriere volcano has clogged and contaminated drinking water reservoirs. And so the island’s water and sewer services are significantly reduced. As an emergency measure, some St. Vincent residents are queuing to fill jugs from roadside natural springs and waiting on tanker trucks. The Caribbean volcano last erupted in 1979, and scientists say it could be active for months. Some 20,000 people have been evacuated from the area around the volcano.

In India, a wetland outside New Delhi that is important bird habitat has dried up for the first time. The Hindustan Times reports that local officials are rushing to refill the Dhanauri wetlands by pumping groundwater into them. When completely saturated, the wetlands cover an area the size of 200 football fields and provide habitat for more than 200 bird species. A representative of the conservation group Wetlands International said that Dhanauri suffers from low rainfall and the diversion of water for agriculture. Local birders are appealing for international recognition of the wetland as a protected site.

In the United States, one of the country’s largest poultry companies settled a lawsuit over claims of groundwater and air pollution. Family-owned Mountaire Corporation agreed to pay $205 million due to pollution from its chicken processing plant in Millsboro, Delaware. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that the settlement will be split two ways. Residents near the plant who were affected by polluted air and wells contaminated with nitrate will be eligible for $65 million in payments. Mountaire will use the remaining $140 million to upgrade its waste treatment system.

This week Circle of Blue looks at a report on California’s drinking water systems showing that hundreds are below health standards, and hundreds more are at risk.

In 2018, when California lawmakers were debating a funding package for clean drinking water, one of things they didn’t know was the extent of the need.

The State Water Resources Control Board has released the 2021 Drinking Water Needs Assessment report, so now regulators have a detailed picture of where things stand: how many small water systems are failing or at the brink of failure and what it would cost to bring them up to par.

The California needs assessment found over 300 public water systems that consistently fail to provide drinking water that meets state and federal standards. Add to this some 600 public water systems that are at risk of failing. There are also roughly 600 state small systems, those that serve fewer than 25 people, that are at high risk of failing to meet health standards because of their location in aquifers with a high risk of contaminated groundwater.

The list of failing systems does include a few larger utilities, but it is mostly smaller units that struggle. These failing and at-risk systems are clustered in heavily agricultural regions such as the Central Valley and Salinas Valley, as well as in Los Angeles, San Diego, and Sonoma counties. The analysis also found about 78,000 domestic wells that are in areas of concern for groundwater contamination.
Joaquin Esquivel, the chair of the California Water Board, told Circle of Blue that the needs assessment will inform the state’s spending on drinking water as it attempts to deliver on its goal of safe, clean, affordable water for all residents. The report estimates that short-term and long-term fixes for the vulnerable systems and domestic wells should cost about $10 billion over five years.

Esquivel said the report arrives at an auspicious moment. At the federal level, the Biden administration wants to dedicate $111 billion to improve the nation’s drinking water and sewage systems. If Congress agrees, the White House plans to send a significant part of those funds to low-income areas and communities of color – places that have historically been left on the margins, with inferior water and sewer service. Esquivel said that the funding gaps identified in the report — billions in grants and loans over the next five years — will help the state advocate for federal money in the coming months as the White House proposal takes shape.

Meanwhile, California is coming off its third-driest winter on record. It has a moisture deficit that is recalling the last severe drought to hit the state. That multi-year disaster parched California from 2012 to 2016. Water quality deteriorated and Wells in Central Valley farmworker communities dried up by the thousands.
State officials don’t want to see a repeat of that. Esquivel said that the funding needs identified in the report show what it could take to help small systems succeed. In 2019, California lawmakers approved a drinking water infrastructure fund that targets these at-risk systems. The fund will provide $130 million annually.

The report also examined risks and remedies for the state’s smallest water systems. That includes public water systems, tribal water systems, state small systems, and domestic wells. The report also looked at water supplied in primary and secondary schools. Michelle Frederick, of the State Water Board, said that about 90 percent of water systems that violate drinking water standards are small, serving 500 people or fewer. This, she said, “speaks to the fragmentation of our infrastructure statewide.”

It’s a situation that is well known. The report brings new insights into solutions, their cost, and their affordability for low-income areas. The report found that nearly half of the failing systems could benefit from Improved treatment processes that can remove common contaminants such as nitrate, arsenic, and 1,2,3-TCP. The rest of the failing systems could be addressed by joining them to a neighboring system with more financial stability. Another option is to install filters on faucets or where the water enters the home. All the water systems could benefit from technical expertise and additional equipment.

The options all have their limitations. Better treatment systems could work for larger water providers, but they are complex, and could overwhelm a system with only several dozen customers. In-home filters produce clean water, but they are expensive to maintain, because utility staff need to make sure they are working properly and are replaced when necessary. System consolidations reduce the number of failing utilities, but the politics are delicate.

For calculating costs, the report looked at a simplified version of system consolidation. It paired one at-risk or failing system with a better-run neighbor nearby. It found that such consolidations were feasible for about 20 percent of failing and at-risk systems. Such one-off mergers can be expensive because some small systems serve only a few dozen homes.

On the other hand, larger regional projects benefit from economies of scale. In Monterey County, for instance, there are 85 small systems near a larger system in the city of Marina. To consolidate these systems individually would cost $39,000 per connection. But tying them together into one regional project brought the cost per connection down by over 80% – to only $7,000 per connection.

Because of the complexity of the data, regionalization costs were not included in this initial report. But Kristyn Abhold, who oversees the water board’s needs analysis unit, said that she hopes to include regionalization costs in future needs assessments. Those assessments will be updated annually and incorporate new financial data on revenue and expenses, as well as refined definitions of what affordability means.

Greg Pierce, the principal investigator for the assessment and a senior researcher at the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, said that no other state report has delved into such detail on drinking water system risks and needs, parsing data on water quality, technical capacity, financial metrics, and water sources. Pierce described it as “an enormous effort” that brought in academic as well as non-governmental partners.

And that’s “What’s Up With Water,” from Circle of Blue, where water speaks. More water news and analysis awaits you at This is Eileen Wray-McCann – thanks for being here.