The Small Water Systems and Rural Communities Drought and Water Shortage Contingency Planning Report: A Summary of Likely New Requirements

As part of the Conservation is a Way of Life legislation (AB 1668 and SB 606) passed in 2018, the Department of Water Resources (“DWR”) and State Water Resources Control Board (“State Water Board”) were charged with identifying small water suppliers (i.e., water suppliers with between 1,000 and 3,000 service connections) and rural communities (aka “self-supplied communities”) that may be at risk from drought and water shortage.  DWR and the State Water Board also were required to develop recommendations and guidance with respect to the development of drought and water shortage contingency plans for those small and rural water suppliers.

DWR and the State Water Board formed a stakeholder advisory group, the County Drought Advisory Group (“CDAG”), which included representatives of water systems, statewide associations, including CRWA, environmental justice groups and other interested parties to assist in the above tasks.  The CDAG met over several years to discuss the various issues involved in the identification and planning tasks.  The result of those efforts is the recently published report entitled “Small Water Systems and Rural Communities Drought and Water Shortage  Contingency Planning and Risk Assessment” (the “Report”).  This memorandum will provide an overview of that Report, including a summary of the recommendations that will likely be included in legislation (see, e.g., SB 552 (Hertzberg)) and an overview of the risk indicators that have been developed and will be applied in determining systems to be at risk of drought or water shortage.  Also, the link to the internet site were the risk analysis is housed is provided for any small system that desires to see its drought risk score.

Part 1 of the Report sets forth the recommendations for small and rural water systems’ drought and water shortage contingency plans, and Part 2 addresses drought and water shortage vulnerability assessment and risk scoring.

PART 1 – RECOMMENDATIONS.  

A. Small Water Suppliers.  The CDAG participants acknowledged that many small water systems lack drought and water shortage contingency training and generally do not have the managerial, technical and financial capacity to develop a full-scale water shortage contingency plan.  Thus, the concept is to keep the process simple and to use existing processes to assist those small systems.  The Report sets forth the following seven recommendations for small water suppliers’ drought and water shortage contingency plans:

  1. All small community water systems (between 15 and 2,999 service connections should be required to develop an Emergency Response Plan and a drought supply evaluation to submit to the State Water Board.  The CDAG emphasized that the water systems should compile a list of relevant resources that can be used to assist in a drought and also should develop a community outreach plan to inform their community of resources and assistance available in the event of a drought or water shortage emergency.
  1. The State Water Board should work with all systems serving less than 1,000 service connections to improve drought and water shortage resiliency.  This process is underway as part of the State Water Board’s ongoing needs assessment under the SAFER program.
  1. Systems serving between 1,000 and 2,999 service connections should be required to develop an abridged drought and water shortage contingency plan.  The key under this recommendation is that the plan would be “abridged” and not be as stringent as the water shortage contingency plan that systems with more than 3,000 connections must include in their urban water management plans.  The proposed abridged plan would be consistent with the AWWA M60 Manual concerning drought preparedness and response.  Appendix 2 to Part 1 of the Report sets forth the proposed abridged plan components: (a) form a water shortage response team; (b) forecast supply in relation to demand; (c) balance supply and demand and assess mitigation options; (d) establish triggering levels; (e) develop a staged demand-reduction program; (f) adopt the plan; and (g) implement the plan.
  1. The state should provide technical assistance on drought and water shortage planning, preparation and response.  This recommendation would focus on training and also the preparation of guidance documents to facilitate small systems’ abilities to develop their water shortage contingency plans and emergency response plans.
  1. In developing a water shortage contingency plan, small water systems should use the state’s proposed periodic drought risk assessment.  The use of that assessment data will allow small water suppliers to more easily develop plans to address and recover from drought and water shortage.
  1. All water suppliers should be required to provide and maintain accurate water service boundaries on a designated site, to be maintained by the State Water Board.  The State Water Board acknowledges that the current water system mapping for the state is not complete and is not consistently updated or verified.  This recommendation would result in maps that are accurate and can assist in various planning activities, but would also require small water systems to provide boundary mapping information to the State Water Board.
  1. The state should support small water systems to install additional infrastructure to improve drought and water shortage preparedness and response, such as installing water meters or a backup well.  This recommendation includes seven measures for small water systems should take to help ensure sustainable water supplies:  (a) participate in the California Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network (CalWARN) or other mutual aid agreements; (b) adopt a drought conservation, communications and enforcement policy; (c) secure a backup power source; (d) implement monitoring systems to detect groundwater levels in production wells; (e) have at least one backup source of water that meets water quality regulations; (f) implement service connection metering and monitor for pipe leaking; and (g) have source and distribution system capacity to meet wildfire flow requirements.

 

B. Self-Supplied [Rural] Communities.  For rural communities, one issue that was discussed is the fact that many self-supplied systems lack the knowledge on how to communicate with state and regional agencies when a local problem emerges.  The CDAG participants focused on the allocation of roles and responsibilities of different entities in developing solutions to the issue.  That resulted in the following five recommendations made in the Report.

  1. Counties should specify drought as a risk in their Local Hazard Mitigation Plans and Emergency Operations Plans.  The counties were named as the appropriate agencies to address drought planning efforts for self-supplied communities.  The concept here is to integrate such drought planning into a county’s existing planning documents.  The state would develop an on-line reporting procedure for counties to report where they have addressed the necessary drought planning issues.
  1. The county or state should provide technical assistance to improve reliability of water supplies.  This recommendation would focus on training, such as workshops, to disseminate relevant educational materials.
  1. County General Plans should include drought resilience and water shortage contingency policies.  This item recommends legislation to specifically add drought and water-shortage contingency planning to required county General Plan elements.
  1. County and regional planning agencies should use the state’s proposed periodic drought and water shortage risk assessment to prioritize needs for drought and water shortage contingency planning.  The counties should supplement that state-provided data with their own local data to prioritize their drought and water shortage actions.
  1. The state should continue to improve its understanding of domestic well locations and depths.  DWR acknowledges a lack of information on well locations and well depths, including where wells that have been plugged and abandoned.  An understanding of domestic well locations and well depths will assist future drought and water shortage risk assessments for self-supplied communities.

 

C. General Recommendations.  The Report also sets forth the following three general recommendations.

  1. The state should conduct periodic statewide drought and water shortage risk assessments to generate risk scores for each small water system.  Such assessments will enable local entities, such as counties or groundwater sustainability agencies, to be aware of areas that are at higher risk of drought so they can be prioritized for funding for the abridged water shortage contingency plans or for targeted assistance during periods of water shortage.
  1. Drought and water shortage contingency planning and response should be incorporated into implementation of the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund.  The Report recommends that drought and water shortage vulnerability should be included as part of the ongoing State Water Board needs assessment and be considered for funding in the annual Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund Expenditure Plan.
  1. The state should establish a standing interagency drought water shortage task force for pre-drought planning and post-drought emergency response.  This task force would develop strategies to enhance collaboration between various fields and to consider all types of water users.

 

Part 1 of the Report concluded with four topics for further discussion – the need for regional-scale planning on water supply and demand conditions; encourage policies that prioritize sustainable drinking water for small and rural water systems, including additional requirements on any new water systems; integrate drought risk and resiliency into hazard mapping tools; and providing funding and financing for contingency planning.  Suggestions for that funding and financing are discussed in Appendix 5 to Part 1 of the Report.  Those suggestions include, but are not limited to, the state providing funding and incentives for large water systems to assist small water systems, increased operational, technical and financial assistance to small systems, providing bridge financing during capital construction to address delays in receiving state grant payments, and streamlining the grant funding process.

PART 2 – VULNERABILITY ASSESSMENT AND RISK SCORING.  Part 2 of the Report focuses on the methodology DWR has developed to evaluate the risk of drought and water shortage that small water systems face.  That methodology includes three key components: (1) exposure to hazardous conditions and events; (2) physical and social vulnerability to the exposure; and (3) recent history of shortage and drought events.  Twenty-nine indicators were then developed under those components to be used in establishing risk scores for the small water systems throughout the state.  Those 29 indicators include climate change impacts, groundwater quality and water level issues, the existence of interties with other systems, the existence of multiple water sources, whether the system has metered service connections, the number of service connections a system has, and various demographic issues.  Twenty indicators were applied for self-supplied/rural systems.  Those indicators are discussed in detail in Sections 4.0 (for small water systems) and 5.0 (for self-supplied communities) of Appendix 1 to Part 2 of the Report.

DWR assessed 2,419 small water suppliers (2,244 small community water systems and 175 schools with their own water systems) for their relative risk of drought and water shortage.  The report does not provide the outcome of that assessment, but does include a link to an internet site that provides the risk score for those systems:  https://data.cnra.ca.gov/dataset/drought-risk-small-suppliers-and-communities   In applying those risk scores, the higher the risk score is, the more at risk the water system is with respect to drought and water shortage.

Of the systems in the top 10% of being at risk, none of those systems have any intertie with another system and all but one of those systems had one or fewer sources of water (trucked water does not count as a water source).  Also, 84% of those systems primarily relied on groundwater.

CONCLUSION:  The Report sets forth important information regarding the vulnerabilities that small water systems and rural communities throughout California face with respect to drought and water shortage conditions.  This information is particularly timely now as the state faces another drought after a relatively dry winter.  We will see what steps the Legislature takes in enacting legislation to implement some of the recommendations included in the Report.

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