Rural Water Systems Struggle in the Good Times and the Bad

By Joe Ferrell, Communications Intern

February 21, 2014

The current drought is shaping up to be particularly damaging to small and rural communities. In mid-February, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) announced that 17 rural communities face the prospect of running out of water within 60-100 days. These water systems serve populations ranging from 39 to 11,000 Californians. The CDPH is extending its assistance to these communities in an effort to both reduce water use and locate alternative sources, stressing the need for conservation and creativity.

However, water systems in rural communities have been underfunded for years, something that has impacted their ability to maintain and upgrade infrastructure. The State will hopefully work to make infrastructure that is already in place more efficient, but as the drought continues, they will likely look to bring in water from elsewhere. This could be done by connecting smaller water systems to larger ones, drilling new wells, or hauling in water on trucks, among other options.

17-counties-facing-water-shortages

Seventeen rural water districts in California at risk of running out of water. To view the full sized map, click here.
Source: California Department of Public Health

The Pacific Institute’s 2013 report Assessing Water Affordability notes that, despite California’s recognition of the human right to water, many rural areas of California still suffer from a lack of access to safe and sufficient supplies. Even when small rural systems have decent water quality, the lack of revenue base leaves them unable to save sufficient funds to address future infrastructure replacements or emergencies. As a result, small rural systems’ water services can be less reliable than large or urban systems.

Many small community water systems in California also struggle with nitrate contamination. Nitrates in drinking water can cause shortness of breath and blue baby syndrome, and small systems don’t often have the revenue to afford mitigation technologies. The Pacific Institute report The Human Costs of Nitrate-Contaminated Drinking Water in the San Joaquin Valley explores how households in communities with contaminated water end up paying more for filtration systems or alternative sources such as vended and bottled water. This can be particularly detrimental to poorer, rural Latino populations, because as The Human Costs report points out, they are statistically more likely to have tap water with higher levels of nitrate.

Small rural communities with dwindling water supplies during the drought may accrue similar additional costs as users look to alternative water sources. A survey-based study on a population in rural Pennsylvania showed that the cost of water from alternate sources ranged from $26.71 to $82.85 per household per month. In addition to paying higher rates for water from alternative sources, water users utilizing alternative sources frequently have to pay an additional $11.33-22.66* in transportation costs because of the longer distance between them and the water source.

It is unclear how drought-stricken water systems will pay for alternative sources of drinking water, should they be needed. Suffering communities may institute rate increases, although this is a slow process that still does not address the issue of affordability. The state’s Drinking Water Program will provide some financial assistance, and the state might also be able to expedite loans made through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, an EPA program that provides low-cost loans to drinking water systems in need of infrastructure improvements.

Lacking the resources and revenue that big urban water agencies possess, rural communities face a stark and immediate concern at the worsening drought. As the CDPH evaluates alternative water sources for these communities, who will bear the burden of the cost to develop them?

* Alternative source and transportation costs adjusted for inflation.