Water Board yet to deliver $1 billion in planned grants while nearly 1 million drink unsafe water

Though taxpayers have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into ensuring safe drinking water, a scathing audit said nearly a million Californians are deprived of just that due to the State Water Board’s “lack of urgency” in providing aid.

Acting State Auditor Michael Tilden blasted the State Water Resources and Control Board for taking an average of 33 months to assist areas with failing water systems when the approval process was only 17 months five years ago.

As a result, nearly 1 million Californians receive unsafe drinking water from failing systems and are waiting years for assistance, the audit notes. In December 2021, the State Water Board classified more than 370 water systems serving 920,000 people as failing “because they exceeded the maximum contaminant levels for safe drinking water.” Of these, 240 have been failing for at least three years, and 150 have been failing for five years, according to the state auditor.

The audit, released Tuesday, notes that the State Water Board “has funding available to help these failing systems improve the quality of their drinking water” but has not prioritized processing applications.

Between July 2016 and December 2021, the State Water Board awarded $1.7 billion in loans and grant funding for water infrastructure projects, and roughly half of all loans and grants were awarded to systems “serving disadvantaged or severely disadvantaged populations.”

In the 2021-2022 fiscal year, $1.4 billion in state and federal dollars was made available for drinking water programs, according to the audit. Of that, $650 million came from the state’s general fund for drinking water project grants, well as $330 million came from the Safe Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (funded by federal and state dollars), $240 million from state general obligation bonds to provide grants and loans for water projects and $130 million came from the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund.

Tilden wrote that the State Water Board’s “lack of goals and metrics for its application process” has caused a longer time frame for applications to be processed.

“The longer the board takes to fund projects, the more expensive those projects become,” Tilden wrote. “More importantly, delays increase the likelihood of negative health outcomes for Californians served by the failing water systems.”

During the past fiscal year, the water board provided $3.3 billion in assistance to communities for water projects addressing water resilience, the drought and access to safe drinking water, according to a news release. Of that, about 90% of the assistance took the form of loans for water resilience and drinking water projects.

“This past fiscal year, the board provided $984 million, including $118 million through the SAFER program, to advance access to safe and clean drinking water throughout the state,” according to the State Water Board’s news release.

During fiscal year 2022/2023, the State Water Board told The Center Square that it has “approximately $1.07 billion in grant funding and $330 million in loan financing available to assist community water systems and domestic well communities to address their most critical drinking water project needs.”

To address the issues outlined in the audit, the state auditor recommended the State Water Board streamline its application process and develop a way to fast-track urgent projects. The auditor also recommends the Legislature increase oversight over the board by amending state law to require the board to express its “timeliness goals” and performance in an annual expenditure report.

In response to the audit, the State Water Board acknowledged the need for certain improvements and agreed with the auditor’s conclusion that the board should work to streamline the application process. However, the State Water Board pushed back on the audit’s assertion that the board lacked urgency in delivering aid.

The water board said that since 2019, the population of people impacted by failing water systems shrunk from 1.6 million to 934,000 after the board made “substantial progress” in its Safe and Affordable Funding for Equity and Resilience (SAFER) Program, which aims to provide safe drinking water.

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