Water & the West

Central Valley Communities Struggle for Drinking Water: Q&A with Felicia Marcus, California Water Expert

What has been done and what still needs to be done to untangle physical, financial and political barriers blocking fair access to clean drinking water in California?

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East Porterville resident Donna Johnson, left, delivered bottled water to town residents during the multiyear drought in 2015. The small Central Valley city is one of hundreds in the state facing shortages of safe drinking water supply.   David McNew/Getty Images

By Felicity Barringer

Felicia Marcus, former chair, California State Water Resources Control Board.

Felicia Marcus, former chair, California State Water Resources Control Board.   Water in the West, Stanford University

Environmental inequality is pervasive in California’s less wealthy areas; the inequities are stark in small Central Valley communities whose drinking water from home wells has long been polluted. Not just polluted, but in some cases cut off entirely as nearby farms over-pumped local groundwater during the major drought.

As chair of the California State Water Resources Control Board, Felicia Marcus had to confront the issue directly. Marcus, a lawyer who is now the William C. Landreth Visiting Fellow at Stanford’s Water in the West program, headed the Environmental Protection Agency’s Southwest Region under President Bill Clinton, and before that was president of Los Angeles’s Board of Public Works and the western director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Here are Felicia Marcus’s answers about what has been done and what still needs to be done to untangle the physical, financial and political barriers blocking fair access to clean drinking water in California.

How many California communities lack safe drinking water? Where are they? How many people live there?

The folks at the State Water Board are working on this. It’s not an easy question to answer precisely, in part because the state and federal rules have only applied to communities serving over 25 people for over 60 days a year so we have pretty good data there. There are lots of people in even smaller systems or on domestic wells that are completely unregulated or lightly regulated at the county level. So a big priority is to get a handle on the entire scope of the issue.

Upwards of 200 to 300 small communities under state jurisdiction are unable to consistently meet state and federal drinking water requirements, and estimates range from hundreds of thousands to more than a million people who are potentially drinking from contaminated groundwater sources across the entire population. These are primarily in the Central Valley, the Salinas Valley, and the Coachella Valley, but there are also quite a few urban systems that are also plagued by contamination that they can’t handle. That total includes the people who get their water from even smaller non-state regulated systems or use domestic wells, which are regulated by the counties or not at all.

What interim measures has the state used to ensure safe drinking water in those areas? Bottled water? How much has that cost and what does it mean for the families that depend on bottled water?

Bottled water has been an emergency band-aid for many. But it should only be a stopgap while you get to a more sustainable structural solution. Fortunately, we got funding to help communities that ran out of water; unfortunately, that was more easy to come by than funding for people using substandard water. That has to change. During the drought, because people were not only drinking contaminated water but had run out of water, we were able to get emergency permission and appropriations that allowed the State Water Control Board, along with the Department of Water Resources and Office of Emergency Services, to drill wells, run pipes, and deliver water to tanks put on front lawns. The state spent many millions on these stop-gap measures. We needed permission as well as money because we needed to help smaller unregulated communities and domestic well users. People don’t realize that one of the most painful things for government employees is that they have to have authority to spend money as well as the dollars to spend.

The best solution is to get people hooked up to a capable water system that can treat, operate, and maintain operations meeting today’s stringent standards. It can take entirely separate treatment systems for contaminants like chemicals, nitrates and other things. Each community can have a different mix of naturally occurring and human-caused contamination. Treatment costs add up quickly.

What are the sources of contamination — or groundwater withdrawal — that leave wells dry or ensure that the water in the wells is contaminated and unsafe?

Two different questions. Wells can run dry for a variety of reasons—heavy drought is of course one of them. Someone else putting in a stronger deeper well is another that we have seen a lot of in unregulated parts of the state. That led to the historic Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014, which finally gave the state authority to regulate groundwater over-pumping, the last state in the West to do so.

Map of California groundwater basins showing prioritization

Map of California groundwater basins showing state prioritization levels. Click for interactive map.   Geoff McGhee/Bill Lane Center for the American West

Contamination is another story, though over-pumping can definitely lead to contamination. Sometimes there is naturally occurring contamination, like Arsenic and hexavalent chrome (known as Chrome 6). They can be mobilized by pumping of certain kinds, and they can also come from pollution. Other times, it has been deposited as a by-product of agriculture (e.g., nitrogen or pesticides), or through industrial practices (e.g., non-naturally occurring Chrome 6, 1,2,3-Trichloropropane). The nitrogen pollution is both from irrigated agriculture and large-scale dairy operations. In some cases you can pinpoint who put it there. In many more, you can’t. In urban areas, you have a witches’ brew of chemicals left from historic industrial use.

Over-pumping can also draw in saline water from nearby aquifers. This happens in coastal aquifers with regularity. It can also happen by moving saline groundwater inland. You really need data to identify where saline plumes are coming from, where they are going, and what pumping is making it happen.

In most urban areas, agencies have the resources to get the data they need to make treatment and management decisions and to treat and blend water to keep it safe. That isn’t rocket science. But in rural areas, or urban pockets, there frequently isn’t the economy of scale or the managerial, technical, or financial resources to do it. New tools are needed.

What are the biggest puzzle pieces in improving water equity? Financial? Or political?

Financing is obviously critical for all sorts of obvious and not-so-obvious reasons. Many of these small systems, let alone domestic wells, are in communities that can’t afford to run systems even if they are built by the state. In one case, the state built a system and the town had to close it — they couldn’t afford to pay for its management and the chemicals needed. But up until last year the state only had the money to help them with what are known as “capital” expenses, like buildings or equipment, not ongoing operations and maintenance like staffing, chemicals, maintenance of equipment, rent.

That’s why it was such a big deal to get legislation passed last year setting aside $130 million annually to subsidize operations and maintenance for small communities. It’s money that can make the difference between well managed systems and ones relying on duct tape and fingers crossed. That’s money the rest of us put up to acknowledge that we are all one state, all Californians, and it is in all of our interests, moral and actual, to see that safe and affordable water is available to all.

Map of state subsidies provided to small disadvantaged communities in California

Map of state subsidies provided to small disadvantaged communities in California.   State Water Resources Control Board

The water board is now working on plans for spending that money. It was the final piece of the puzzle needed to make good on the state’s Human Right to Water goals. As for the bigger communities into which smaller communities might be consolidated, legislation gives the state board authority to order consolidation and subsidize necessary capital costs. It also can now hire “administrators” to take over failing systems or design new ones. It now can subsidize some operations and maintenance expenses and pay for the administrators it had authority but no funding to hire.

You are right to talk about puzzle pieces, because that is definitely what it takes. There is not one way to do this, it’s not a McDonald’s kind of enterprise. It’s like tinker toys, Mr. Potato Head or a puzzle, where you put the pieces together in a way that makes the most sense in each community or constellation of communities. To be effective, you have to work respectfully with communities, so they can choose to pick the puzzle pieces that make the most sense given the unique characteristics of their community, or group of nearby communities.

Concern about inequities in safe drinking water deliveries in California have been around for decades. There has been improvement in areas, like East Porterville in Tulare County. Why did it take so long? What happened in East Porterville? Can it be replicated?

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Map showing East Porterville in Tulare County.

East Porterville lies south of Visalia in Tulare County.   Bill Lane Center for the American West

East Porterville is one of the most interesting cases. It is a large community that looks like a large rectangle cut out of the larger surrounding City of Porterville. There are historic reasons for that, not all of them good. In the midst of the drought, it came to light that East Porterville residents were largely on domestic wells, not connected to the City of Porterville. It was rather obvious that a solution would be to consolidate.

The issue was highlighted not because the water quality in those wells was poor — which it was — but because the community actually had wells run dry during the drought. An amazing woman, Donna Johnson, delivered water out of the trunk of her car. She also was phenomenal, in concert with community activists, in getting word out. Churches and government agencies delivered bottled water and set up showering and laundry stations. The Office of Emergency Services (OES) came in with large tanks to go in front yards and filled them periodically from tanker trucks. Eventually, legislation allowed OES, the state board, and the Department of Water Resources to pool resources and connect those homes to the Porterville system.

It was unusual that we not only got permission to help domestic well owners, but to physically connect them all the way into their homes from the street (these “laterals” are traditionally the homeowner’s responsibility). The East Porterville mobilization and teamwork was great. Mobilization on a smaller scale is happening in various shapes and sizes across the state. The 200-300 state regulated systems with compliance problems will be easiest to get to and will serve the greatest number of people fastest. In many cases, some smaller non-state regulated systems can be consolidated with them or with each other to create viable water agencies. Individual homes with domestic wells will be harder to get to. Some, as in Porterville, will have enough geographic proximity to a water system that they can be consolidated into an agency, or at least have an agency that can oversee and help them get home-scale treatment systems. Domestic wells that are remote will be the most difficult to reach.

Why did it take so long to recognize and fix a significant problem?

It took a long time to act because small systems and domestic wells were seen as a local issue; the state had no authority to help. Over the past decade, community activists, like the Community Water Center, the Leadership Counsel for Leadership and Accountability, and Clean Water Action built the case for action. They first got the Human Right To Water (HRTW) policy passed in 2012, the first state in the nation to have one. They actually got it passed at least twice, because it was vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger based on objections from larger water agencies. Governor Brown signed it and supported it when it was put on his desk over those same objections. The statute set state policy, which then enabled, and encouraged state agencies to try to prioritize the issue but it didn’t include new authorities, directives, or deadlines. In 2012 and 2013, the state board issued reports illustrating just how serious the problem was. Media attention brought it to light for people all over the state, so the political will was built to do more about it. Activists then spent the next years getting the tools to the state agencies to actually implement policies and programs that could make the aspirations of HRTW real on the ground.

Has there been resistance to efforts to solve the safe drinking water problem? Or is there general agreement that it is a human right?

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California Gov. Jerry Brown holds a chart showing statewide average precipitation as he speaks during a news conference in January 2014 in San Francisco.   Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

I think everyone gives lip service to it, but not everyone is willing to do something about it. For many years it was one of those “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” issues whether in rural areas or urban centers. In 2012, Governor Brown signed the Human Right to Water statute, which started the ball rolling.

Once the issue was elevated, agencies like ours could make it a top priority in all of our programs — funding, enforcement, regulation. Capital dollars came forth in propositions put on the ballot by the legislature. The drinking water program was consolidated into the state board from the Department of Public Health in 2015 in part to give disadvantaged communities a place for technical assistance and “one-stop shopping” for both their water supply and wastewater treatment needs. Things began to move.

Generally arguments revolve around who should pay. Polling has shown that the general public would support a small fee on their water bills to help pay for safe water for all. The water utilities were adamantly against it, seeing it as the “camel’s nose under the tent” for a bigger set of fees like we have in the energy arena, which is understandable but unfortunate. But using general funds for ongoing operations and maintenance is risky. It puts something that must be continually on deck into an annual argument over the general fund, competing with every other human-services need out there out of a pot of money whose size varies considerably, depending upon the economy. No matter the economy, people need clean, safe, and affordable water and sanitation.

In the end, after two years of failing to get the fee under the Brown Administration, Governor Newsom opted to use cap-and-trade dollars, which is causing consternation in the climate world and activists’ concern that it is less certain than a fee. But the argument over how to pay for it cost us a couple of years when we could have been helping more people, so I’m just glad something passed, and hope they find a way to assure more sustainable funding in the near future.

If you could wave a magic wand and make changes in state laws or spending to ensure water equity, what would you do?

I would want a sustained funding source not just for this, but for investments in technology that would benefit everyone. There is an amazing array of new technologies being developed in the arenas of treatment, monitoring, sensors, and big data. These could not only help more people have clean, safe, and affordable water but could also save tons of money and the environment. Institutional support for that kind of research, testing, and dissemination has worked a miracle in the energy arena. We should be doing it for water, too, rather than just fighting over it.


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A national environmental correspondent during the last decade of her 28 years at The New York Times, Felicity provided an in-depth look at the adoption of AB 32, California’s landmark climate-change bill after covering state’s carbon reduction policies. MORE »

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Xavier graduated from Stanford in 2023 with a degree in economics and is currently a master’s student in Stanford’s journalism program. He has written about the high phone call costs faced by U.S. inmates, temporary Mexican workers’ interactions with the labor market and the efficacy of government healthcare assistance programs. A lifelong lover of charts and maps, he enjoys combining data journalism with narrative-style reporting. 

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