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April 23, 2013
Editorial: Water funds go unspent, even with tainted taps

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(April 23 -- By the Editorial Board)

It's incomprehensible and inexcusable. More than 2 million California residents do not have access to clean drinking water. Thousands are forced to drink bottled water because the water coming through their taps is polluted, dirty, smelly and unhealthy. And yet, the California Department of Public Health is sitting on $455 million in federal funds allocated specifically to provide safe drinking water.

In a blistering letter to California Department of Public Health officials, the federal Environmental Protection Agency last week threatened to suspend payments if the state doesn't speed up its disbursement of funds to water districts that desperately need the money to upgrade their drinking water systems.

This is a problem of long standing. In 2011, the Fresno Bee published a series of stories about the state's inability to get clean water funds to San Joaquin Valley towns where drinking water wells are heavily polluted with nitrates from fertilizers. When he was running for governor, Jerry Brown promised to bring clean water to those residents. As recently as last September, with great fanfare, he signed Assembly Bill 685, legislation establishing a state policy that every Californian has a human right to safe, clean, affordable drinking water.

But even then, given the urgent and well-documented need, frustrated federal officials were trying to understand why the state had failed to spend almost a half billion dollars - the largest pot of unspent safe drinking water money held by any state in the nation. Is it ineptitude or indifference?

Ineptitude seems to be the consensus. Communities with the worst drinking water problems are poor and sparsely populated. Many lack the managerial talent or the funds necessary to process complicated federal and state safe drinking water grants and loans, or to build and manage sophisticated water systems.

In addition, the application process itself, at both the state and federal level, is overly bureaucratic.

Assemblyman Henry Perea, D-Fresno, has introduced Assembly Bill 145. It would shift responsibility for disbursing safe drinking water funds from the Department of Public Health to the State Water Resources Control Board, an agency with regulatory power over tainted groundwater and a track record of successfully moving federal money to communities that need it. Other bills pending in the Legislature would make it easier for small communities to join together to seek federal funding.

These bills deserve consideration, but they don't relieve the Legislature and governor of ascertaining how this federal money has gone unspent, even in the face of such need. After the state parks scandal and now this, Californians are wondering: How many other pots of money have state agencies hoarded, and how have state leaders allowed this to happen?

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