One California policy response to rural water problems

California, in the depths of drought, is pushing for a modest policy initiative that could help deal with the problem of poor rural communities running short of water.

In the depth of New Mexico’s 2013 drought, I got really interested in the communities that were, and more importantly were not, running out of water. What was the difference?

The root answer, of course, was water. There wasn’t very much of it around. But given that reality facing so many communities, what separated those that were, and those that were not, running out? The answer I found was this vague thing folks have taken to label “capacity”. All the communities running out were rural, and rural is mostly far less affluent than urban here in New Mexico.

In a similar drought a decade earlier, more than 50 rural communities had run out of water – dry enough that they needed to truck water to fill their needs. In 2013, far less trucking was needed. What had happened in the interim? The answer is capacity building. There was a concerted effort, with outside funding (state and federal) to help communities. There wasn’t any one size fits all. Sometimes it meant supply diversification (a second well). Sometimes it meant better maintenance of the well. And sometimes it meant banding together, creating interconnections between neighboring systems. All that takes money, both for physical capital and also for human capital.

That’s the sort of thing state officials in California are pushing for:

The Brown administration is pushing late-emerging budget legislation to let state officials force the consolidation of troubled water systems with larger, better-funded agencies, with the goal of improving Californians’ access to safe drinking water after four years of drought.

Proponents say the measure would help people around the state, many of them poor, who depend on small agencies that have little wherewithal to deal with water shortages and quality problems.


  1. LAFCOs — Local Agency Formation Commissions — are just about the most obscure agencies in the State. And the LAFCO statute, the Cortese-Knox-Hertzberg Act, is virtually impenetrable except to the most devout. (I confess that I had to read the statute at one point in my legal career. ye gods.) So I’m somewhat encouraged to read that the Governor is looking to empower the SWRCB instead.

    But that has its own problems. I don’t see that the SWRCB has any particular expertise in forcing mergers between reluctant agencies. At least the members of the LAFCO are supposed to be sensitive to the issues that arise when two agencies merge.

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