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Some Hard Truths About California's Water Woes

The populous Golden State will need more than short-term emergency funding to solve its groundwater contamination and depletion problems.

A drought alert sign in Fresno, California on Sept. 11, 2014
A drought alert sign in Fresno, California on Sept. 11, 2014
Tess Townsend

SELMA The governor of California, Jerry Brown, declared an end to the state's five-year drought in April 2017 after a wet winter replenished shrinking reservoirs. But the lingering impact of the drought, especially on groundwater supplies, means some still rely on emergency water tanks while they wait for long-term solutions.

This is particularly true in the San Joaquin Valley, where more than 300 domestic well users whose taps have run dry continue to use tanks provided by the state through a program originally slated to end in June.

With the help of emergency funding requested by Assembly member Joaquin Arambula (D-Kingsberg), whose largely rural district is in the valley, the emergency water supply program will likely continue another year at a cost of $3.5 million. Also included in the emergency relief efforts is $10 million to address failing domestic wells and septic tanks, and $10 million for the Drinking Water for Schools Program that funds treatment solutions for schools that struggle with contamination. New state regulations for contaminants like lead and carcinogen 1,2,3-trichloropropane mean schools will need more money to meet safe drinking water standards.

The state now has more than 20 groundwater basins that are deemed "critically overdrafted."

"There are parts of my community that lack access to the basic necessities for life," says Arambula. He says he frequently encountered patients without access to clean water in his work as an emergency room doctor in the Fresno County city of Selma.

The Senate and Assembly budget committees approved the request and it's now part of final budget negotiations. As with other line items, the Legislature could still vote to remove the requested money from the budget package before it is finalized.

The money partially bridges a gap in critical services for a group of California residents who lack access to clean water. A November analysis by PPIC Water Center estimated about 500,000 people in the state get their water from a system not compliant with safe drinking water standards. That number does not include people who rely on domestic wells.

But the need this funding addresses won't disappear entirely by the middle of 2019 when the next budget year starts. That's because many of the problems are related to groundwater overdraft. The state now has more than 20 groundwater basins that are deemed "critically overdrafted." The San Joaquin Valley is particularly hard-hit and many communities there are entirely reliant on groundwater. As farmers dug deeper wells to keep up with a falling aquifer during the drought, many shallower domestic and community wells were left high and dry.

The nonprofit Self-Help Enterprises, which administers emergency water tank and well-drilling programs in the San Joaquin Valley, says about 320 of its clients still use water tanks. The organization anticipates that number will decline to around 220 by the end of June as many households start using newly drilled wells. These clients represent a large proportion of those in the state who rely on the tanks.

During the drought, the state started providing tanks for free to residents who rely on domestic wells that ran dry. A water truck comes at regular intervals to the residents' properties to fill the receptacles at no cost. Nonprofits like Self-Help, as well as some counties, administer the tank program and distribute state-funded loans and grants to drill new wells.

"I think we'll be able to really end the tank program this coming year, barring some other extreme circumstance," says Self-Help community development manager Jessi Snyder.

But she says the need for new wells will continue in coming years. More applications for help are coming in, Snyder says; hundreds who have requested applications have not completed and returned them yet. Still, the pace of work has slowed down.

At the peak of the drought in 2015, Self-Help was seeing around 15–20 requests per week, says Self-Help program director Susan Long. That number has gone down to 10 a month but there is still a backlog. "You just couldn't get a well driller to respond at the height of the drought," says Snyder.

Some in the organization's service area who have not sought help may also be in precarious situations, with wells that may be close to running dry.

There's a long-term solution that should mitigate the drying up of wells. Groundwater management plans implemented as part of the rollout of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act are intended to prevent excessive pumping of groundwater. But the law, passed in 2014, doesn't require plans to be in place until 2020, and then it will take years for it to start tangibly impacting groundwater levels.

"We've taken decades to get into this situation, and it's going to take us a couple decades to get out of it, I think," says Snyder.

In the interim, the state is also pushing consolidation, where those with failed wells or unsafe septic systems are connected to nearby systems in working order. Residents living close enough to larger water or sewage systems may feasibly be able to connect to them, and the funding Arambula has requested can also help with that. A University of California, Davis study found that two-thirds of residents in disadvantaged San Joaquin Valley communities without safe drinking water lived within a mile of a system meeting clean water requirements.

But consolidation comes with unknowns: pending legislation and expense.

Two bills, Assembly Bill 2501 and Senate Bill 1215, would explicitly expand the state's authority to force absorption of domestic wells and septic tanks into nearby larger systems that function properly. A law already passed, Assembly Bill 88, allows the state to step in and mandate consolidation of community water systems under some circumstances. The idea is to extend the benefits of larger systems' economies of scale to areas with smaller systems that lack resources and often have little hope of building those systems up given small ratepayer bases.

If the new bills don't pass, there will be no guarantee that people who rely on their own private drinking water and septic systems have a chance of connecting to larger, higher-quality systems.

The $10 million requested for dealing with dry wells and failing septic systems "would be helpful, but would not make an appreciable dent in the backlog of projects."

As with implementation of groundwater management plans, consolidation won't happen quickly. "You are looking at a couple years' in many cases to account for coordination and engineering work, says Phoebe Seaton, co-director of the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, which sponsored the latest consolidation bills. Incremental solutions, such as emergency water supplies and drilling new wells, are needed in the interim. "At this point, the emergency piece is critical," she adds.

Then there's the cost. Jennifer Clary, a water policy and legislative analyst for the environmental advocacy group Clean Water Action, says a single new connection to an existing drinking water system could cost between $5,000 and $10,000 depending on how much infrastructure it requires. Connecting an entire community of domestic well users would be more expensive. The $10 million requested for dealing with dry wells and failing septic systems "would be helpful, but would not make an appreciable dent in the backlog of projects," Clary says.

That's why she, Seaton and others working on water justice issues in California have pushed a long-term funding mechanism. The Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund would create a dedicated supply of around $140 million, annually, for a broad range of water quality efforts including not only treatment of water in schools and consolidation but also ongoing costs of treatment for struggling water systems too remote to consolidate. The fund is included in Gov. Jerry Brown's budget as a trailer bill, and may undergo changes before the final budget faces a vote.

If the trailer bill passes in the budget as proposed, it will still take time for the fund to accumulate. That means the money wouldn't be immediately available, says Snyder. Which means emergency water needs could still require short-term funding solutions, such as those in Arambula's request.

"I believe we need temporary relief until we can get to a long-term solution, and we'll continue to figure out how we can get to those longer-term solutions," says Arambula.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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