The head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday that she was disappointed by the slow progress state, federal and local governments have made in bringing potable drinking water to small towns in the San Joaquin Valley.
"We've got rural communities that don't have clean water and there's no plan on how to get it to them," EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in a meeting with Los Angeles Times editors and reporters.
McCarthy's comments follow the federal government's threat this spring to cut off clean drinking water funding because state officials have been sitting on more than $455 million in unspent federal money. The EPA also faulted the state Department of Public Health for a lack of financial accountability with the funds.
Residents and activists in small communities across the state said they were forced to pay for bottled water as fixes to what came out of their pipes were delayed year after year because of red tape.
This summer, the state public health agency issued a 16-page plan to improve the distribution of federal money, including a pledge to distribute more than $800 million over the next three fiscal years — four times as much as in the last three.
McCarthy's remarks came during a three-day visit to California, her first since taking over as the nation's top environmental regulator in July. She also discussed the Obama administration's push to battle climate change by regulating carbon dioxide emissions from new power plants and an upcoming rule that will assert the EPA's jurisdiction over the nation's water bodies under the Clean Water Act.
The EPA announced this week that it had awarded California $174 million in federal funding to invest in water infrastructure projects, including $79 million to the public health department for the drinking water fund.
"Things are looking up," said Jennifer Clary, program associate for the group Clean Water Action. Still, she said, significant challenges remain for communities seeking potable water. The drinking water fund may not be spent on operations and maintenance of water infrastructure, so even if a town is able to install treatment systems, it could be prohibitively expensive to operate them.
McCarthy's visit included stops in San Francisco and the Fresno area, where she met with farmers and activists about water and air quality concerns. On Thursday, she walked along the Los Angeles River with Mayor Eric Garcetti before touring the Port of Long Beach and a recycling facility in Wilmington.
The day before, McCarthy visited an elementary school in Orange Center, a community near Fresno that lacks a centralized water system or sewer system and is organizing to fix that. Well monitoring has shown high levels of nitrates and, in some cases, uranium. So for now, the school uses bottled water.
In an interview later Thursday, McCarthy said bringing safe drinking water to such communities should be a priority for all levels of government. The EPA, she said, has been working to "try to make sure that federal funds are spent wisely and focused well."
"We need to make sure that the state implements effectively," said Jared Blumenfeld, the EPA's regional administrator. "I think they're on track to do that."
Experts have offered differing estimates of how many people in California do not have access to safe drinking water. Earlier this year, the state's public health agency put the number at about 200,000 people at any one time who are served by a water system that violates state health standards. But some legislators say the number is as high as 2.1 million when communities not served by publicly regulated water systems are counted.