Dr. Jackson Webster collecting water samples at a creek.

Steady Streams: Bringing ​Safe Water to California Communities

With a mix of research and outreach, the CSU is addressing one of California's greatest challenges by securing access to safe drinking water for some of the state's most vulnerable populations.

Over the years, much attention has been given to California's drought, but less is known about the more than one million Californians in more than 300 communities who don't have access to clean drinking water.

To address this crisis, CSU faculty and students are performing community assessments, conducting research and assisting local engineering projects, often with support from Water Resources & Policy Initiatives (WRPI, see more information below​).

“Our primary focus right now for external funding is working with underserved and disadvantaged communities to help them get access to clean and safe drinking water," says WRPI Executive Director Boykin Witherspoon.

Take a look at some of the CSU's ongoing work.

Fire and Water

The 2018 Camp Fire burned more than 150,000 acres and 18,000 buildings, leaving behind ash, melted plastic and debris that winter rains then sent into the region's lakes, rivers, creeks and watershed.

“Just about anything you can imagine can come out of a burned urban area," says Jackson Webster, Ph.D., assistant professor of civil engineering at California State University, Chico (shown above). “There's all kinds of potential for all of those things to mobilize into surface water and be transported through the watershed to downstream users or just into the ecosystem."

Burned cars in a wooded area.

Town of Paradise, which was burned by the 2018 Camp Fire.

With a National Science Foundation grant, Dr. Webster and his project partner Sandrine Matiasek, Ph.D., assistant professor of geological and environmental sciences at Chico State, are determining the effects of the conflagration on the a​​rea's watersheds by collecting and testing samples from the five that were affected.

While analysis of the samples has shown fluctuation in the levels of pollutants in the water, it has also shown that most are getting caught in sediment around the waterways.

“Some of the combustion products are carcinogenic and others are heavy metals, which are known toxins," says Dr. Matiasek. “When these contaminants are present in sediment, there are a lot of questions as to whether the contaminants are going to remobilize and move farther downstream in the watershed when sediment gets picked up by runoff, as well as the long-term exposure to not only humans but fish and the aquatic food web."

As the team dives into its test results, new questions and potential research continue to emerge, like which contaminants are the direct result of the fire and how will they impact wildlife, the ecosystem and ultimately humans. “The relevance of this work is there's really a lack of knowledge of the water quality impacts of urban fires," Matiasek continues.

Two female students collecting water samples.

A Chico State student and a Northwestern University student testing water samples in June 2019.

With University of California, Davis, they have already started testing how contaminants affect the development and survival of Chinook salmon hatchlings in Butte Creek, which drains Paradise—one of the main towns devastated by the Camp Fire.

But perhaps most pressing is the potential health risks to humans, research for which the team is still seeking funding. For example, the drinking water in shallow private wells could be contaminated by polluted surface water while people who swim in the creeks could also come into direct contact with the contaminants. In addition, the region's waterways feed into lakes that provide water for agriculture in Southern California and the Central Valley.

“Hopefully what we learn from all of this are lessons that can be translated if this should happen again," Webster says. “And as we've seen these fires increase in occurrence over the past few years, I think it's a fair bet, unfortunately, this is going to happen again."

Map It Out

To ensure California residents have access to safe water, the state provides funds to disadvantaged communities in need of repairs and improvements to their water infrastructure, also called technical assistance. However, many of these communities don't know how to qualify or apply for this funding, and the state has no objective way to prioritize the applications it receives.

Enter California State University, Northridge's team at the Center for Geospatial Science and Technology: Director Danielle Bram, Project Manager Joel Osuna, Associate Director and Associate Professor Regan Maas, Ph.D. and Associate Professor Soheil Boroushaki, Ph.D.

“The idea is that the state would identify certain communities who are most in need of assistance to help with different needs related to water," Bram says. “And that could be access to drinking water, access to clean water for recreation or developing better stormwater infrastructure for safety."

“Before the state even gets to the point of being able to provide technical assistance, we have to better identify the communities who really need that assistance and are most qualified to receive that assistance," she continues.

With WRPI's California Department of Water Resources funding, the team began a four-phase project to help underserved communities in Orange, Los Angeles, Ventura, San Bernardino and Riverside counties get the technical assistance they need. The first phase is better identifying the disadvantaged communities who qualify for assistance based on variables like residents' income, age and language using GIS, a geographic data mapping and modeling tool.

A group of people gathered around posters at an outdoor event.

January 2020 community event in Ventura to inform local residents about their water supply.

The second phase, which the team is currently in, involves ​developing a toolkit with community planning and design firm PlaceWorks and doing outreach with nonprofit partners to inform these communities about their water providers, water sources and how to qualify and advocate for the state resources.

“Although you'd think they would know quite a bit of information about the area they're living in with regards to water, there is either a lot of misinformation or just missing information," Bram says.

Next, the communities submit project proposals and funding applications for the state to review. To facilitate this step, the CSUN team is developing a multi-criteria decision analysis tool that helps the state prioritize applications based on factors like location, cost, support needed and the community's ability to maintain the project.

“The model will help to more objectively rank these projects," Bram explains. “So, the stakeholders who ultimately make the decisions about which communities get the aid can have a tool that helps them identify in a more data-driven way which communities and projects should be offered the technical assistance."

Lastly, after the technical assistance projects have been identified and funded, WRPI can get other CSU teams involved in the work, with CSUN providing GIS or data support.

Come Together

In the rural county outside the city of Fresno, children attend a local elementary school that acts as its own independent water supplier, relying on a single water source that the school monitors to provide water for sinks and drinking fountains. But its water source is contaminated by TCP, a toxic chemical in pesticides, and it's too expensive for the school to fix the problem itself.

The school is just one of about 35 disadvantaged communities around Fresno that act as their own water suppliers and are similarly at risk. Focusing on 12 high-priority communities—a mix of elementary schools and healthcare facilities, including urgent care, Alzheimer's care and elderly care centers—a team from California State University, Fresno is developing a plan to connect them with Fresno's water system, ensuring reliable access to clean water.

“They're a power failure away, they're a contamination away, they're a failed well away from being out of service and out of compliance with drinking water regulations," says Thomas C. Esqueda, Fresno State's associate vice president for water and sustainability.

The main issues with these independent systems are they are permitted to rely on only one water source, instead of two like city water systems, and are often chronically noncompliant with state standards because they cannot afford to make necessary improvements.

With the implementation of the university's plan, these communities will “be connected to the city, so they'll have reliability, redundancy and backup supplies," explains Esqueda, who is also the executive director of the California Water Institute.

Thomas C. Esqueda and five students working around a table.

Fresno State student team and Thomas C. Esqueda working at the California Water Institute office during the fall 2019 semester.

“Their life will fundamentally change in terms of their water, and really what that means is peace of mind," he continues. For schools and healthcare facilities, “[supplying water] is not their core mission, so the benefit of consolidating with the city is that they can focus on their core mission and not have to worry about and deal with these ancillary things."

With State Water Resources Control Board funds and WRPI support, students carried out much of the work as part of a classroom project—reviewing site data, inspecting the facilities, developing two consolidation solutions per site, preparing cost estimates and finalizing the report submitted to the state. In addition, this multidisciplinary project included students studying GIS, civil engineering, construction management and business.

After the team submits the final proposal, which lays out the step-by-step process, the state will be responsible for implementation.

To see and share more ways the CSU serves California, use #CSUforCA​.

What is Water Resources & Policy Initiatives?

With internal and external funding, Water Resources & Policy Initiatives (WRPI) supports the work of CSU experts seeking solutions to the many water issues affecting California. From engineering-based technical assistance to community assessments, WRPI brings in campus teams to complete the work.​​

A key element of WRPI's structure is its requirement that experts include students in the work to provide hands-on learning experiences.

“The students are coming from the types of communities we're working with," Witherspoon explains. “So, the idea of empowering a student to go back into, maybe not their community, but a similar community to provide these kinds of services is really powerful. There's a workforce development part, but then they also develop an understanding and even an empathy for the conditions a​nd needs of these communities."

Explore water-related degrees and courses, from agriculture and geology to engineering.