Small water systems in Los Angeles County often struggle to provide their customers with clean drinking water at an affordable rate due to groundwater contamination, financial management problems and other issues, according to a report from UCLA Law released Tuesday.
The report’s authors look at the challenges facing L.A.’s small water systems, which have fewer than 10,000 customers but are numerous in the county and service more than 250,000 customers.
“To be clear, many small water systems in L.A. County provide safe and affordable drinking water. The problem is that many others do not,” wrote the report’s authors, Cara Horowitz, Nathaniel Logar and James Salzman. “If we take the human right to water seriously, the place to start is with small water systems.”
According to the report, L.A. County has over 200 water providers. The largest, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, has more than 4 million customers, while the smallest, Winterhaven Mobile Estates in Antelope, serves just 25 customers.
The majority of the providers in the county are small, and due to contaminated groundwater sources and underfunding, often fail to meet basic standards, the report says.
One recent example of a struggling small water district was the Sativa Water District, which served 1,600 customers and came under fire over the last year for delivering brown water to customers in Compton and Willowbrook. The state Water Resources Control Board in October turned over management of the troubled district to Los Angeles County.
Small providers lack easy access to capital for treatment infrastructure or the ability to tap surface water sources like large providers can, the UCLA report says, which also notes that the majority of the smallest systems — those serving less than 3,300 customers — are wholly reliant on groundwater sources.
With few or no clean sources to draw from, small systems either have to pay the high costs for treating contaminated groundwater or import water at almost double the price of treated groundwater, the report says. With small numbers of ratepayers, small water systems do not benefit from the economies of scale available to a large system, and infrastructure costs can be three times higher per person for small systems than for large systems, the report says.
Small water systems’ weak revenue bases create other challenges, and they are often unable to offer rate-assistance programs, as they have fewer paid staff to maintain operations and take advantage of grants and cost share programs, the report says. The result is that ratepayers can get less quality service despite their expensive water bills.
The report also found that many small systems have trouble accessing money for ongoing operations.
The report makes several recommendations, including that the state should improve data collection on the water quality as well as water pricing and customer income levels in small water systems; that the State Water Board should make greater use of its authority for water system consolidations, as only one consolidation has occurred in the last 40 years; and that the state must find ways to supply greater funding specifically directed for small water system operations and maintenance, infrastructure improvements, and disaster planning.
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