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Leveraging Water System Consolidations to Advance Equity and Resilience

Kristin Dobbin, UC Cooperative Extension Specialist at UC Berkeley

In the United States, small drinking water systems disproportionately violate the Safe Drinking Water Act at a rate of more than thirteen to one compared to large systems. As a result, millions of U.S. residents, particularly black, brown, indigenous, rural, and poor residents, lack access to safe and affordable drinking water. These facts underscore the unique challenges that small water systems face in achieving and maintaining regulatory compliance and the necessity of addressing them if we are to advance social and environmental equity. Drinking water system consolidation, or the merging of two or more previously independent water systems, is one possible solution.

Based on its potential to address a diverse array of challenges from limited capacity, climate-change resilience, and persistent racial and economic inequalities, consolidation is increasingly a favored solution among regulators at the local, state, and national level. California has been among the states leading the charge when it comes to implementing consolidation. In the last seven years California has developed financial incentives for larger water systems to consolidate small systems, introduced new powers to mandate consolidation under specific circumstances, and prioritized consolidation over permitting new water systems among other policy changes. Similar work is now also underway at the federal level where the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is working on a new water system restructuring rule.  

Unfortunately, there is very little empirical research available to guide these policy interventions. Significant questions remain as to realized outcomes of consolidations (e.g., changes to household water quality, rates, system resilience to climate change, equity) and how these may vary based on key consolidations characteristics (e.g., physical versus managerial consolidation, provision of technical assistance). Consequently, we lack best practices for advancing efficient, equitable consolidation projects. 

Using a combination of water system surveys, secondary data collection, and semi-structured interviews, this proposal will address these gaps. In doing so, the project will grow our understanding of consolidation as a policy solution and advance our understanding of what types of consolidations should be promoted and how. Results and related best practices will be shared via both scientific publications and policy-oriented reports. Results will also be presented directly to decision-makers and community stakeholders through presentations and workshops. A project advisory committee made up of technical assistance providers, state water board staff, and community-based organizations will provide critical input throughout the course of the project to ensure maximal policy and practical impact.