Pierce Investigates Failing California Water Systems

Greg Pierce, associate director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, spoke to Bay City News about the lack of access to clean drinking water in rural regions of California. Roughly 1 million residents rely on failing water systems with contaminated drinking water. According to Pierce, “about 90% of California’s public water system violations occur in systems serving less than 500 service connections, underscoring the inherent risk of small size and lack of capacity.” Smaller systems have less revenue and often fail to provide necessary system maintenance and repairs. Pierce is leading a Center for Innovation team seeking to identify all of the small community systems and private wells that need help meeting drinking water standards. The State Water Resources Control Board has identified more than 300 systems that are out of compliance and will use the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund, established last year, to upgrade and consolidate smaller water systems.


Pierce Brainstorms Solutions for Communities in Fire Zones

Greg Pierce, associate director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, was featured in an Agence France-Presse article discussing the fate of communities in fire zones. Thousands of homes have been destroyed this year by deadly wildfires raging across the western United States. As the climate grows hotter, many homeowners who live in these high-risk areas are questioning the future of their communities. According to Pierce, “the idea of evicting citizens is the last solution residents want to resort to and policymakers want to resort to, because it’s so dramatic and so costly.” However, he acknowledged that “for some communities, it’s the only answer for survival.” Pierce, an adjunct assistant professor of urban planning, explained that the housing affordability crisis in California has contributed to the exponential growth of fire-prone communities built on the forested margins of cities since “it remains cheaper to build new development in outlying areas than it is in core urban areas.”


Grassroots Environmental and Financial Assistance for L.A. Residents UCLA Luskin researchers find emPOWER campaign reaches areas impacted by poverty and pollution

By Stan Paul

Low-income households in California face higher energy, transportation and water affordability burdens than other populations as a percentage of household income spent on utilities. Yet the existence of a number of environmental benefit programs provided by state and local agencies does not ensure that these households benefit from them.

A new pilot program designed to enable low-income households across Los Angeles County to realize more fully those benefits is off to a good start, according to a new report by the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation or LCI. The purpose of the LCI report is to provide an evaluation of the first year of the campaign, including its equity implications, the effectiveness of its outreach and areas for growth.

“The pilot stage’s reach to the most environmentally disadvantaged communities in the region was undeniably a success,” said Gregory Pierce, associate director of the center and lead author of the program evaluation, “emPOWER: A Scalable Model for Improving Community Access to Environmental Benefit Programs in California.” The report was co-authored by Rachel Connolly, a graduate student researcher at the Luskin Center for Innovation. Connolly is a doctoral student in the Environmental Health Sciences department within the Fielding School of Public Health.

The emPOWER outreach campaign was launched in 2019, with Liberty Hill Foundation, a Los Angeles-based social justice philanthropic organization, serving as regional hub administrator. Through existing community relationships, Liberty Hill funded eight community-based organizations across the county to connect low-income residents with a suite of environment-related financial assistance programs, including those offering clean and affordable energy and clean transportation. These incentive programs provide benefits including, but not limited to, utility bill savings, zero-emission vehicle incentives and energy efficiency home upgrades.

The platform was launched to realize opportunities via community relationships and to address longstanding public health issues in environmental justice communities. mark! Lopez, the executive director of one of the organizations, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, explains the importance of this neighborhood engagement in Southeast Los Angeles County.

“When our folks have limited income, that reduction [in cost] is everything,” Lopez said. “That reduction is the ability to breathe; it can mean everything for the trajectory of our families.”

“That’s the really novel aspect of the program,” said Pierce, who is also an adjunct assistant professor in urban planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. The community organizations are already connected with a lot of people who can benefit from these programs. “People trust them, and they can convey the opportunities in a much more effective way.”

Pierce pointed out that emPOWER benefit programs are brought together in one place enabling households to sign up at once, “instead of a number of separate programs that are hard for people to understand or sign up for. It’s great that there are so many programs but at this point they can be operated and communicated in a more coherent way.”

The emPOWER program will continue to operate in Los Angeles County in 2020, with goals to expand the campaign model beyond Los Angeles, first to the Inland Empire and ultimately statewide. Broadening and deepening this campaign can help ensure a just transition in the process of climate change adaptation over the next several decades, according to the authors.

Report Findings:

  • The emPOWER campaign serves as a replicable model for the state. It prioritizes funding to authentic grassroots organizations working to build power in communities on the front lines of industrial pollution.
  • Despite some administrative challenges, the campaign engaged more than 11,000 distinct households and received over 2,700 eligibility applications.
  • Especially compared to existing individual programs, the campaign was highly successful in reaching communities disproportionately affected by systemic racism, poverty, pollution and now the pandemic. Over 90% of emPOWER participants live in a state-identified disadvantaged community or low-income community census tract.
  • Monetary benefits for participants are tremendous. On average, each emPOWER participant is eligible for more than nine incentive programs. Eligible participants can receive hundreds of dollars in benefits for their electric, gas and water utility bills. For instance, the average participant could receive $320 annually in electricity bill assistance through Southern California Edison’s CARE program. In addition, many participants can receive up to $9,500 in benefits to trade in an old gas-guzzling vehicle for an electric car through the Replace Your Ride program.
  • Notable process successes of the campaign included community organizations’ ability to build upon existing relationships with their communities, a focus on program benefits that participants were consistently motivated to apply for, and active technical assistance and program adaptation.  Frequently reported challenges that need to be addressed in future phases of the program include community hesitation and misconceptions regarding emPOWER and the associated incentive programs.

Study Aims to Bolster California’s Safe-Water Efforts at Child Care Facilities Luskin Center for Innovation analysis offers wide-ranging guidance on state mandate to test drinking water for lead

By Michelle Einstein

Efforts to ensure safe drinking water for children need further support to reach their intended audience, according to an analysis of California’s mandate requiring child care facilities to test their water for lead, known as AB 2370.

The finding from the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation is part of a new report and policy brief that examine strategies for developing and implementing the state’s testing and remediation program for those sites. Among its recommendations, the report stresses the need for a dedicated funding stream to ensure the program’s success.

“We’ve learned from a similar program in California’s schools that if robust monitoring and funding doesn’t exist, much of the needed testing and remediation won’t be implemented,” said Gregory Pierce, associate director of the center and lead author of the study.

In order to be successful, Pierce predicts, the program will require five to 10 times more funding than the $5 million currently budgeted by the state.

To determine how to best implement the program, the researchers synthesized feedback from a variety of stakeholders, including child care providers, environmental justice advocates and water utilities. They found several current shortcomings, including the fact that many child care providers have not received directives to test their water and that the program’s messaging is only available in English and Spanish.

The study recommends that stakeholders at all levels have a voice in helping to design the program to correct problems. A co-design process that includes parents, day care centers, utilities and state agencies will result in higher compliance rates and confirm that all centers have their facilities tested in a timely manner, the researchers say.

It is also important that the program not increase mistrust of tap water in settings where such concern is unmerited, according to the report. For instance, after hearing about the lead testing program, some day care centers and parents began using bottled beverages, even though their drinking water was clean. Bottled water can be expensive and has a negative environmental impact.

Lead exposure poses an acute threat to young children and their families. Even low-level exposure has been connected to loss in IQ, hearing impairments and learning disabilities. Recognizing this threat, California passed Assembly Bill 2370 in 2018, which mandates the testing of drinking water for lead at licensed child care facilities built before 2010. These sites must complete the tests before 2023 and, if elevated levels are found, remedy the problem or find alternative sources of water.

AB 2370 represents a meaningful step toward further protecting children’s health, the researchers say, but implementing the law remains a huge feat. Thousands of day care centers must test and clean up their plumbing systems, and many of these facilities are experiencing funding and staffing shortages, especially during the coronavirus pandemic.

Overall, the researchers view the program as an important step toward ensuring the human right to clean water for all Californians. A more streamlined and supported implementation process, they say, would help officials better deliver on-the-ground results statewide.

The study was funded by First 5 LA, an independent public agency working to strengthen systems, parents and communities so that by 2028, all children in Los Angeles County will enter kindergarten ready to succeed in school and life.

LCI Experts on Drinking Water Crisis in the Antelope Valley

Gregory Pierce and Kyra Gmoser-Daskalakis of the Luskin Center for Innovation (LCI) co-authored an opinion piece in the Antelope Valley Times about drinking water problems in the Antelope Valley. The valley is home to about 5% of Los Angeles County residents but reports 80% of its major water quality problems, they wrote. Most of the area’s water systems are small, with limited financial resources and lack of technical and managerial expertise, making water quality and quantity problems more likely to occur. Pierce, associate director of LCI, and Gmoser-Daskalakis, associate project manager, warned that “as the climate continues to change, stresses on water systems will only increase.” They suggested extending the services of larger water systems that are performing well to places where smaller water providers are having trouble; increasing state funding to upgrade treatment facilities and capacity; and improving monitoring of small water systems by the county or state.


Pierce on Unpaid Water Bills and Challenges Ahead

Gregory Pierce, associate director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, spoke to Circle of Blue about California’s policy of suspending water shutoffs during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hundreds of utilities and dozens of state governors and regulatory agencies have suspended the practice of shutting off water for residents who are late paying their utility bills and have eliminated late fees during the emergency period. However, Pierce expressed his concern that “residents are expected to pay those bills after the emergency orders are lifted, which could pose problems down the road for both individuals and utilities.” Pierce, an adjunct professor of urban planning, explained that “low-income residents are not going to have any greater ability to pay six months of bills six months from now than they are today.” Instead, Pierce argued that “utilities have to eat some of the loss” and they “have to expect less than 100% repayment.” 


Study Identifies Underperforming Water Systems in L.A. County Report and policy guide provide full picture of more than 200 water systems, plus a look at regionwide trends and disparities

By Colleen Callahan

A new study by the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation (LCI) found significant disparities in the quality, affordability and accessibility of water across Los Angeles County. However, the number of health-related water-quality violations in the county is quite low compared to other parts of Southern California, the researchers concluded.

The study evaluated the county’s more than 200 water systems and compared current data to findings published in LCI’s 2015 water atlas. The progress report flags interventions that may be necessary to continue improvements and address persistent problems. Los Angeles County is working with state and federal agencies to respond to several systems that incurred repeated water-quality violations.

A 2012 state law (Assembly Bill 685) establishes that all Californians have the right to safe, affordable and accessible water – referred to as the “human right to water.” Yet this right is not a reality for everyone in L.A. County, due primarily to differences in community water systems that directly provide water to residents and businesses.

“The goal is to give systems operators, regulators and residents the most current and comprehensive picture of water system performance in order to identify what systems are in need of interventions,” said Gregory Pierce, associate director of LCI and lead author on the report. “Despite momentum, urgent attention is needed to address water system problems.” Pierce also teaches urban planning at UCLA Luskin.

System performance overview 
While most systems in L.A. County provide sufficient levels of safe and affordable water to their customers, many small systems – particularly mobile home parks, RV parks and mutual water systems – are most at risk for having technical, managerial and financial challenges that lead to poor outcomes related to quality, affordability and accessibility.

Governance trends
There are fewer active community water systems today than five years ago. The reduction of apparently 10% of systems in L.A. County suggests that some have consolidated, which reflects progress in reducing water system sprawl that results in many small, low-capacity systems at higher risk of un­derperformance.

Quality trends
Compared to other counties in Southern California, the number of health-related water-quality violations in L.A. County is low, particularly on a per capita basis.

Affordability trends
The report found great disparity in how much residents pay for water across systems. For an amount of water sufficient for a family of four, rates today range from $26 to $134 per month.

Accessibility trends
Few systems report producing less than the standard set in the “human right to water” legislation — 55 gallons per person per day. However, systems in San­ta Clarita and Antelope Valley were most likely to face declining groundwater levels. Increasing population, changing precipitation patterns under climate change and other factors pose challenges.

“In addition to the state’s efforts, more regional, local and system-level work will be necessary to ensure the human right to water for all,” said Kyra Gmoser-Daskalakis, a researcher at LCI and co-author of the report.

UCLA Luskin Research Informs State’s Water Affordability Actions Effort for California Legislature represents the first statewide picture of California’s water affordability challenges

By Stan Paul

Researchers at the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation helped develop and inform recommendations for a report released this week by the California State Water Resources Board aimed at establishing a statewide low-income rate assistance program for water.

The report was requested from the Water Board, within the California Environmental Protection Agency, by the California State Legislature via AB 401, which passed in 2015.

In creating the report, Water Board staff worked with UCLA lead investigator and author Gregory Pierce and Center for Innovation (LCI) colleagues Nicholas Chow, J.R. DeShazo and Kyra Gmoser-Daskalakis.

“We gathered and analyzed data on water rates, household incomes, and other low-income assistance programs to create the first statewide picture of California’s water affordability challenges,” said Pierce, LCI associate director and senior researcher for the center’s Water, Environmental Equity and Transportation programs.

To date no federal government or state has developed or administered a water rate assistance program, added Pierce, who is also an adjunct assistant professor of urban planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.

In California, about 13 million people (34%) live in households with income under 200% of the federal poverty level ($50,200 for a family of four in 2018). At the same time, retail cost of water has risen over the past decade and will continue to rise, while low-income households continue to struggle, according to the report. Among several reasons offered to support a statewide water affordability program include the fact that the majority of the state’s more than 3,000 water systems are too small to support low-income programs by themselves.

“Through research, we are broadly supporting efforts to implement policy to make the human right to water a reality,” said Pierce, explaining that affordability is one of three dimensions of the human right to water, which also includes quality and accessibility.

Recommended in the report is a three-part strategy to comprehensively address water affordability for low-income Californians, including those who pay indirectly through rent. The recommendations are: a direct water bill credit, a renter’s water credit, and water crisis assistance.

If implemented in full by lawmakers, the effort is expected to cost about $600 million in the first year. This would include administrative expenses as well as billing modifications.

The report also identifies possible revenue sources, including tax increases, which would require a two-thirds approval by the state legislature or voter approval via a ballot initiative.

Pierce on Presence of Lead in State’s Drinking Water

Gregory Pierce, adjunct professor of urban planning and associate director of research at the Luskin Center for Innovation, spoke to Arizona PBS about the presence of lead in California’s drinking water. California is testing pipes and upgrading plumbing at public schools across the state, the article noted. Nearby homes typically share the same water systems, but “there’s no required testing for these privately owned places, which may result in many people not knowing that the water they are using for showers, cooking and drinking purposes may have lead contamination,” Pierce said. The article cited a UCLA report card on water quality in Los Angeles County, where some residents perceive that their tap water is unsafe. “With the lack of trust in their water, these lower-income residents and areas are now having to rely on water stores, or having to buy drinks such as juice or soda because they believe there are issues with their water.”

Pierce on Southern California Desalination Plant

Gregory Pierce, adjunct professor of urban planning and associate director of research at the Luskin Center for Innovation, wrote an opinion piece for the Press-Telegram about water affordability in Southern California. The West Basin Municipal Water District is considering building a desalination plant whose cost would be shared among residents of the 17 cities it serves. Upon examining an environmental impact report, Pierce found that the project is seeking approval without releasing a rate study that would determine how to allocate the cost. “Before greenlighting a half-billion-dollar (or more) desalination plant, West Basin should be looking at all its options to effectively increase available water supply,” Pierce argued. “I hope they take their responsibility to deliver on California’s Human Right to Water law seriously, and only make a decision when they can fully demonstrate that the desalination project would not make its water unaffordable for the region’s working-class residents.”