Improving outcomes for disadvantaged communities, most of which are served by small water systems, has been a core focus of the California legislature. In 2012, California was the first state in the nation to recognize the human right to safe, clean, affordable and accessible water following the signing of Assembly Bill 685 by Governor Jerry Brown. However, nearly six years later, hundreds of water suppliers across the state  are out of compliance with the state’s drinking water standards.

In particular, communities in California that struggle with high poverty rates often also experience poor delivery of basic services, including water, power, and other utilities. Furthermore, customers who live in areas serviced by small water systems are more likely to suffer from poor water quality and water supply shortages.

These communities have been defined as disadvantaged communities, meaning they are a community whose median household income (“MHI”) is less than 80% of statewide MHI. When costly infrastructure upgrades on a per-household basis are required, disadvantaged communities (DACs) are not positioned to be able to pass steep cost increases on to their customers.

Small water systems are public water systems that generally serve rural populations or small unincorporated areas. When we refer to a “small water system,” we are referring to public water system that has around less than 1,000 service connections. These systems more often rely on groundwater and have smaller budgets due to their size and because they often serve DACs.

When small water systems face water quality or supply challenges, they are more likely to lack adequate funding to invest in alternative water supplies, treatment systems, equipment maintenance, and personnel training. They are also more likely to have difficulty complying with new regulations and implementing sound management systems.

When a small system faces a water quality challenge, the worst impacts are often felt in rural communities where small water providers do not benefit from economies of scale and therefore lack the financial reserves needed to treat naturally occurring contaminants in local water source.