By Emily Foxhall
July 24, 2013
After threatening to cut off funding to California earlier this spring because the state had been so slow to improve its drinking water, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has approved the state’s revised spending plan.
“I think as a result of this process, Californians can be more assured that their infrastructure needs are being met,” said EPA regional administrator Jared Blumenfeld.
In April, the EPA issued a noncompliance warning to the California Department of Public Health, amid complaints that funds were not being distributed promptly or efficiently. Californians in many communities have suffered from a lack of potable water while the state left $455 million in federal funds unspent and failed to pursue an additional $260 million in loan repayments, EPA officials found.
Meanwhile, many residents in low-income communities were forced to buy bottled water or drive many miles to get safe tap water.
The state submitted its “corrective action plan” on June 24. The EPA requested that the state revise and clarify various aspects, and a new plan was submitted on July 12.
Under the new commitments approved Tuesday, the state must distribute at least $878 million to projects by mid-2016. That would be more than double the amount of funding disbursed during the past four years.
In the 2013-2014 fiscal year, the department plans to distribute $200 million.
Blumenfeld said funding commitments were better spelled out in the new plan, and the state will be able to account for and track the money more closely. But the EPA’s continued support of the state’s programs depends on the department’s ability to follow through on its promises, Blumenfeld said.
The revised plan will pay for water system projects of all sizes in the state, Dr. Ron Chapman, director of the state Department of Public Health and state public health officer, said in a statement Wednesday.
Safe drinking water advocates are hopeful that the state’s renewed attention to the funding problems will help smaller, disadvantaged communities, said Omar Carrillo, a policy analyst for the Community Water Center, an advocacy group that works on behalf of low-income people.
The department identified 183 small systems in 2012 that merited assistance.
Assemblymember Henry T. Perea (D-Fresno), who introduced a bill that would transfer drinking water programs from the department of public health to the state water board, said the EPA approval does not mean all problems have been solved.
In a statement, he said the drinking water program should still be under different governance to ensure increased transparency and greater public participation, among other things.