Amazingly, this December marks the end of CalMutuals’ eighth year. The time has flown by but as we reach this milestone, I want to pause and reflect on the many accomplishments made possible through our mission of advocating for small water systems. In my mind, these achievements fall into two categories: three big game changers that transformed how small systems operate and three smaller, incremental shifts that form building blocks toward larger goals.
The first big game changer was the 2014 passage of Proposition 1 and the eligibility of mutual water companies to receive state water bond funds. The second came with the enactment of AB656 (Garcia) in 2016, which allowed us to form CalMutuals JPRIMA and bring insurance and technical resources to small water systems. The third was our proposal in partnership with others for the use of Greenhouse Gas Reduction funds instead of meter taxes in 2019. Today, the State Water Resources Control Board uses these funds to help underperforming water systems under the SAFER program. These three tectonic shifts are a testament to the good we can achieve when we work together.
Smaller shifts have made a big difference too. A key building block in supporting small systems was the creation of the Community Water Systems Alliance (CWSA) in 2018. Two years later, the group of special districts and municipal utilities focused on serving disadvantaged communities decided to establish a permanent relationship with CalMutuals. CalMutuals serves as fiscal sponsor for CWSA averting the need to set up another not-for-profit entity.
A second building block accomplishment came in 2020 when we thwarted passage of SB414 (Caballero) because it gave the State Water Board extraordinary power to dissolve small water systems and consolidate them into special districts. We believed the bill was unnecessary because the State Water Board already had consolidation procedures under SB200 and other bills that created the SAFER program for disadvantaged communities. We argued successfully that the new SAFER program deserves a chance to work given the broad public and stakeholder participation in its formation, including CalMutuals.
Thirdly, CalMutuals expanded technical assistance to its members in 2020 and are continuing to do so through helping create a mutual aid agreement among our members in Southeast Los Angeles County. This is a building block in helping our members operate despite obstacles presented by events such as the COVID-19 pandemic and other circumstances that can affect staffing or making urgent system repairs.
Looking toward 2021, CalMutuals will advocate on policy issues important to mutual water companies, as well as those that help and safeguard our operations. For example, the pandemic has sparked interest in funding a statewide low income rate assistance program that would be funded through water meter taxes. CalMutuals staff is spearheading an effort with the Community Water Systems Alliance to find alternative funding sources for such a program.
Operationally, there is a looming crisis in finding qualified operators to help manage our water treatment systems. A shortage of operators with advanced treatment system training is paired with a flood of people with basic operator certificates who can’t get the necessary experience. This is due to the State Water Board’s requirement that a certified trainer be present at all times when an apprentice is on site for the full training period. This onerous requirement threatens to double staffing costs and drains necessary resources away from other water system maintenance needs. This defect in operator training and certification means there are fewer qualified operators available, forcing smaller utilities to compete (often unsuccessfully) with more well-funded water systems for qualified operators. We are forming a coalition of water associations and agencies to pursue legislation in 2021 and your suggestions are welcome.
For eight years, CalMutuals has been committed to working alongside its members as a trusted, reliable partner to overcome the challenges that lie ahead. Together we’ve accomplished great things and I believe we will continue to do so.
On behalf of your dedicated CalMutuals staff, I wish you a safe and happy holiday season, and good fortune in 2021.