Regional Water Management Group Releases Disadvantaged Community Plan for Drinking Water and Wastewater

On November 8, 2017, the Regional Water Management Group voted to approve the Integrated Plan to Address Drinking Water and Wastewater Needs of Disadvantaged Communities in the Salinas Valley and Greater Monterey County IRWM Region. The full plan is available for download here.

Background: In October 2014, the Regional Water Management Group for the Greater Monterey County IRWM Region received $500,000 in grant funds from the State Water Resources Control Board (State Water Board) to develop an integrated plan to address drinking water and wastewater needs of disadvantaged communities in the Salinas Valley. The funds were appropriated by the California Legislature through Assembly Bill (AB) 1630 (Alejo), from fines and penalties from the Waste Discharge Permit Fund. In 2017, the Regional Water Management Group was provided an additional $200,000 in grant funds from the State Water Board to enable the Project Team to expand community engagement and evaluation of long-term solutions. The following objectives, and associated tasks, were identified for the planning effort:

  1. Identify disadvantaged communities within the planning region, with a focus on small disadvantaged communities in unincorporated areas.
  2. Identify drinking water and wastewater problems.
  3. Develop a comprehensive inventory and database and create maps.
  4. Identify potential solutions for (at minimum) each “high priority” community.
  5. Work with each community to determine preferred solution(s).
  6. Develop conceptual project descriptions and cost estimates for the “high priority” communities.
  7. Identify potential funding sources for the proposed projects and for broader regional solutions.

Focus of Plan: The plan focuses on small disadvantaged communities, and communities suspected to be disadvantaged, in unincorporated areas that are served by state small water systems (5-14 connections), local small water systems (2-4 connections), and private domestic wells. Common problems of small rural disadvantaged communities include, for example:

  • Unreliable or inadequate infrastructure
  • Inability to achieve economies of scale
  • Inability to recover costs
  • Lack of technical, managerial, and financial capacity
  • No existing legal entity to manage water system
  • Dependence on a single source of water
  • Lack of redundancy of system
  • Geographic isolation
  • Low revenues and high delinquency rates
  • Small or nonexistent reserve funds

Environmental Justice Coalition for Water (EJCW) staff conducted extensive outreach to small communities in unincorporated areas of the region, using a questionnaire survey. EJCW surveyed a total of 153 households in 25 communities, covering 19 census block groups. Six of these communities were identified as disadvantaged and 15 were identified as suspected disadvantaged communities (“disadvantaged community” status was later proven for many of the suspected disadvantaged communities by means of median household income [MHI] surveys conducted over the course of the project). The Project Team prioritized the communities according to need, and selected seven communities with the goal of identifying specific solutions for each. These communities were:

  1. Johnson Road, located in North Monterey County approximately 1.5 miles southeast of Las Lomas
  2. Walnut Avenue, located about a half mile west of the City of Greenfield
  3. Apple Avenue Water System #3, located within the City of Greenfield limits
  4. Santa Teresa Village, located approximately 0.8 miles north of the City of Soledad
  5. Hudson Landing Road, located approximately one mile west of Las Lomas
  6. Middlefield Road, located approximately seven miles northeast of downtown Salinas
  7. Schoch Road, located just north of Salinas

The Project Team worked in partnership with the Community Engineering Corps (CECorps), an alliance of the American Society of Civil Engineers, the American Water Works Association, and Engineers Without Borders-USA, to identify and evaluate solutions for each of the seven selected high priority disadvantaged communities. The plan describes the water problems and alternative long-term options for each community, recommended solution(s), potential barriers, community preference (if any), and next steps.

Outreach to the following larger disadvantaged communities was also conducted to assess needs and potential capacity to provide services to nearby small communities: Boronda CDP, Castroville CDP, Greenfield, Gonzales, King City, Moss Landing CDP, San Ardo CDP, and San Lucas CDP. The following water districts/utilities were contacted to assess available resources for potential consolidation or extension of service: City of Soledad, Pajaro Sunny Mesa Community Services District, Castroville Community Services District, City of Gonzales, California American Water (CalAm), Alco Water Service, and California Water Service (Cal Water).

Recommendations: The Project Team offered the following recommendations based on their work over the three-year project period:

Recommendation 1. Funding Needs: Most of the Project Team’s recommendations begin with a need for increased funding support. While numerous federal and state funding opportunities exist for disadvantaged communities, the Project Team noted certain funding “gaps” and recommended that federal, state, and regional government entities consider increasing funding in the following areas:

  1. Guaranteed set-aside funds for small disadvantaged community water systems, particularly to see the “high priority” communities through to an implementable solution.
  2. Increased support for community engagement, particularly to support outreach to communities in the four geographic focus areas identified for future work, and for pre-project development and project development activities for all high priority projects.
  3. Ongoing assessment of needs: Since MHI data changes every year, resources are needed to enable re-assessment of disadvantaged community status and of their drinking water and wastewater needs on an annual basis; importantly, funds are needed to support ongoing updates and maintenance for the Greater Monterey County Community Water Tool database and map viewer, as well as continued hosting costs.
  4. Focused MHI surveys to prove “disadvantaged” status of “suspected disadvantaged” communities in order for those communities to qualify for special grants and loans.
  5. Guaranteed funding for bottled water programs and other interim solutions to ensure that immediate drinking water and wastewater needs are addressed for however long it takes a community to implement a permanent solution.
  6. More intensive outreach to private domestic well owners, along with systematic water quality testing.
  7. Wastewater education, including distributing written materials, hosting informative community workshops, and providing door-to-door outreach.

Recommendation 2. Grant Funding Process: The following recommendations are targeted primarily toward state funding agencies (in particular, the State Water Board) and Monterey County to help make the grant funding process more effective and efficient:

  1. Project sponsorship: The difficulty in finding qualified sponsors for drinking water projects for small disadvantaged communities is, statewide, a frequent and significant barrier to implementing solutions. The Project Team recommends that State funding agencies make grant requirements for disadvantaged community drinking water projects easier and more affordable for qualified entities to sponsor projects. Other ideas are for State or local governments to take a leadership role in sponsoring projects, or for the development of a legal entity, such as a regional Joint Powers Agency (JPA), to act as project sponsor for rural communities, private domestic wells, and small systems where consolidation is not feasible.
  2. Lateral costs: While most funding sources cover infrastructure costs, lateral costs are typically not covered; as a result, a solution that may appear low cost may wind up being an unaffordable option. The Project Team recommends that State funding agencies allow for grant coverage of lateral costs for disadvantaged communities.
  3. More efficient reimbursement from State grants: Short vs. long reimbursement periods can make the difference between small communities being able or not being able to implement long-term solutions. Beginning with Proposition 1 IRWM funds, the Department of Water Resources has instituted a policy to pay disadvantaged communities and nonprofit organizations 50 percent of their grant award upfront. The Project Team urges other State agencies to consider similar reimbursement policies for disadvantaged communities.
  4. Need for increased certainty in identifying costs: Community members repeatedly state that their interest to participate in a long-term water or wastewater project depends on cost. The Project Team recommends that the State Water Board and other funding agencies implement a “pre-approval” process to clarify the costs to property owners of future water or wastewater projects. A pre-approval process, and clear schedule of deadlines for application requirements, would provide community members the information they need to decide whether to join a water project.

Recommendation 3. Monterey County Health Department Coordination: Given the depth of experience and knowledge that County staff have regarding small communities in unincorporated areas of the region, the Project Team encourages increased input from County staff on project evaluations for disadvantaged communities as this work continues into the future.