Many of the rural communities in the San Joaquin Valley face a variety of challenges related to lack of transportation and utility infrastructure. Transportation infrastructure is needed to provide efficient access to schools, work, medical care, and grocery stores. It is also important for rural communities to be able to prosper economically as rural communities rely on efficient transportation for the shipment of products such as food and manufactured goods.
Additionally, when planning for potential housing sites, local agencies must ensure there is sufficient infrastructure for sewer, water, and dry utilities (electric, gas, cable, telephone, and internet). The lack of existing infrastructure along with California’s aging water systems and the competition of water resources due to climate change has overwhelmed many rural communities. Local jurisdictions are facing pressure from residents and new government standards to improve infrastructure; however, local jurisdictions, especially those in rural areas or with limited resources, do not have the funds to improve infrastructure.
Parcels included in the housing sites inventory of a housing element, including those identified for rezoning, must be shown to have sufficient water, sewer, and dry utilities available and accessible to support the planned housing development, or to have planned improvements to provide such infrastructure. If sufficient utility access is present, an analysis describing the existing or planned infrastructure must be provided. If infrastructure is not present but is planned, a program must be included in the housing element to ensure access and availability within the housing element planning period. Including sites in a housing element’s inventory requires showing adequate existing or planned utility infrastructure. As this information is specific to each jurisdiction, it should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis to ensure sites can be included.
Water Systems: Water Supply and Water Resource Management
Housing sites must show current, planned, or potential utilities/infrastructure available for potable water to be considered as part of housing sites inventory, although overall water availability for a region is taken into consideration when a jurisdiction is allocated its RHNA. Changes in water quality regulations and source water quantity and quality may affect the treatment necessary to produce potable drinking water for local jurisdictions. These changes could result in additional treatment processes required and increased costs for treating drinking water to avoid potential for human health risk from consumption. Sustainable groundwater management through the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) has been given a high priority as aquifers continue to be over pumped in many areas, particularly during dry periods when surface water to sustain agricultural yields is in short supply. To maintain a reliable water supply, California’s water systems’ aging infrastructure, including but not limited to, the aqueduct, canals, dams, spillways, reservoirs, levees, pumping plants, and other infrastructure needs to be bolstered or reconstructed.
Climate change is expected to increase pressure on and competition for water resources, worsening already stretched water supplies. Decreasing snowpack and spring stream flows, changes in the rain pattern, and increasing demand for water from a growing population and hotter climate could lead to increasing water shortages. The entire San Joaquin Valley is expected to experience hotter and drier conditions, reduced Sierra snowpack, and changes in rain patterns that could cause reduced reservoir supplies and river flows. The region may experience more intense rainfall events that could increase demand for reservoir capacity to provide for water capture and storage. As a result, water supply is expected to decrease, and water yields from reservoirs are expected to become more unreliable. Competition for water is expected to increase among municipal users, agricultural users, and the environment.
Many rural communities have long faced challenges with providing clean drinking water due to insufficient water infrastructure. Nitrates are difficult to remove from drinking water supplies, especially in systems relying on untreated groundwater that do not have the necessary treatment infrastructure or funds to improve them. Public systems must be consistently maintained and upgraded to meet new State and Federal regulations. These costs, if not built into the rates for supplying water, will lead to insufficient funds for upgrades and maintenance, or emergency repairs.
Case Study: County of Madera
Under SGMA, Madera County comprises three watershed subbasins, all designated by the California Department of Water Resources as critically over drafted, and high priority ‒ the Chowchilla, Madera, and Delta-Mendota subbasins. Each of these subbasins submitted a Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP) in January 2020, which showed a plan to achieve “sustainability” by 2040 through projects and management actions. These include increasing surface water supply for recharge and conveyance, and programs or policies designed to incentivize reductions in groundwater pumping within the subbasins.
Case Study: City of Kerman
The City of Kerman has an ongoing history of water supply contamination and has only one source of water supply ‒ ground water. Kerman has reported higher than State-allowed levels of chromium and uranium and lacks funding to address this issue (City of Kerman 2019). The California Safe Drinking Water Act requires the State to adopt a maximum containment level for hexavalent chromium in drinking water. The State is revisiting the economic feasibility component for establishing a safe level for chromium-6 that is expected in 2021. In 2017, none of Kerman’s wells, apart from one, met the SB 385 chromium standard. In 2018, the City’s wells were well within the allowed total chromium limits. Due to the unknown future of the State’s limits for chromium 6, the City must pursue funding to evaluate treatment options for reducing chromium 6 below the anticipated new standard without a clear indication of the standard it may need to meet.
Wastewater: Sewer Systems and Wastewater Treatment Facility Capacity
California’s wastewater collection systems and treatment plants are regulated by separate and distinct State laws. Additionally, court-mandated judgments and agreements with third-party litigators may play a role in collection system regulations. Developing, maintaining, and expanding these facilities, while also navigating proliferating small maintenance districts, can be very challenging for small rural communities and cities that do not have a large customer base to spread out maintenance and operating costs. This is in addition to dealing with limited scalability with aging systems. Cities are increasingly required to upgrade pipes and other aging infrastructure to avoid major failures and to provide increased capacity for planned infill development. Placing these costs solely on the infill development can price the potential housing development outside acceptable market rates.
Many San Joaquin Valley rural and unincorporated areas still rely on septic systems for wastewater disposal. Some of these areas have a community water system, while others rely on private wells. Regardless, the available water supply significantly affects the number of allowed septic systems in a community, as well as their locations and their ability to provide for additional dwelling units on a property. Septic systems have forced some rural communities to develop community water systems due to private well contamination. In addition, the California Housing and Community Development Department (HCD) has previously indicated that sites identified for above-moderate income housing can still be in areas not served by public sewer systems. AB 725 requires that jurisdictions fulfill 25 percent of their moderate- and above-moderate income RHNA targets with multi-family housing of four-plus units or more, which will put even more pressure on rural jurisdictions to develop programs that expand public sewer systems and/or limit where they can concentrate housing sites.
Case Study: Kerman, CA, Wastewater Treatment Plant (WWTP)
The City’s WWTP is located south of Church Avenue on the Del Norte Avenue alignment and provides secondary treatment. The original plant was designed with a hydraulic capacity of approximately 1.34 million gallons per day (mgd) but was upgraded in 2011 to a capacity of 2.0 mgd. The upgraded WWTP consists of an influent pump station, headworks, two new clarifiers, a sludge press, expanded storage and disposal ponds, one acre of new drying beds, and a new 5,000-gallon storage tank for receiving domestic septic. The aeration tanks from the original plant were also converted to digesters. However, while the upgraded WWTP is sufficient now, growth projections suggest it will be insufficient by 2027.
Flood Control and Management
The California Department of Water Resources Central Valley Flood Protection Plan (CVFPP) is the State’s strategic blueprint to improve flood risk management in the Central Valley. The first plan was adopted in 2012 and is updated every five years. Despite progress to improve flood management, this vast region still faces significant risk. Approximately one million Californians live and work in the Valley’s floodplains, which contain approximately $80 billion worth of infrastructure, buildings, homes, and prime agricultural land.
Modesto, Stockton, and other communities along the Tuolumne and San Joaquin Rivers face growing flood risk. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates a large flood could cause $725 billion in economic losses and force the evacuation of 1.5 million Californians. This risk will grow over time as climate change is turning slow-melting Sierra Nevada snowpack into rainfall that runs off rapidly into the rivers. As a result, the State Central Valley Flood Protection Board predicts that peak San Joaquin River flows will nearly double in the next half century. Many rural communities do not have the resources to maintain the infrastructure needed for adequate protection from the increased flood risk due to climate change.
In lower-income and rural communities, the cost of constructing housing can be prohibitive in areas prone to flooding. As the infrastructure ages and risk of floods grow, some State and Federal agencies either mandate flood insurance, thereby increasing the costs, or refuse to allow housing in those areas altogether. Certain Federal programs also do not allow or require high costs for housing rehabilitation in these areas. As climate change continues, flood control will become an increasingly relevant impediment to housing construction and rehabilitation.
Case Study: Fresno Metropolitan Flood Control District
The Fresno Metropolitan Flood Control District (FMFCD) develops and maintains the Storm Drainage Master Plan (SDMP) for the Fresno-Clovis Metropolitan Area. The SDMP consists of 134 drainage areas, with each drainage area being a self-contained watershed consisting of a collection system and disposal facilities. In most cases, the disposal facility is a basin capable of storing the runoff from six inches of rainfall on the watershed. For the cities’ developed areas, the SDMP is funded through assessment district proceedings; Federal and State grants, low-interest, clean-water loans, a drainage fee program, or a combination of these mechanisms. This approach was necessary because the storm drainage system is “playing catch-up” in developed areas to provide service, and there was insufficient development to generate the necessary drainage fees to fund the system. In undeveloped areas, FMFCD implements the SDMP in anticipation of development by purchasing retention basins. As development occurs, it installs collection systems and excavates those retention basins.
Recently, electric infrastructure damaged by wildfires and stressed by increased demand due to heatwaves has forced the State to lean more on fossil fuels. Utilities use power outages and rolling blackouts across the state to conserve energy and prevent wildfires. This threat of blackouts underscores the State’s increasingly vulnerable power grid as the Valley’s climate becomes hotter and the number of extreme heat days rises each year. Extended drought conditions have dried up some hydro power operations, causing the delay in closing gas-fired power plants still needed to fulfill peak power demand.
California struggles to balance its climate goals of sourcing 60 percent of its power from renewable sources by 2030 and moving away from natural gas and coal power. In the San Joaquin Valley specifically, one of the world’s largest solar power developments, Westlands Solar Park, is being constructed in western Fresno and Kings Counties. This project will produce 2.7 gigawatts (GW) of renewable power. In 2021, the California Public Utilities Commission approved 11.5 GW of new, renewable energy development. This deployment of renewables is expected to replace 3,700 megawatts (MW) of retiring natural gas plants and the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Facility, which provides 2,200 MW of power. The CPUC has ordered additional battery storage for existing and future renewable energy that will improve storage capacity by a factor of 10 by summer 2022.
Telecommunications and Broadband Internet
Broadband access is quickly becoming a necessity for all households. Without affordable internet access, a wide range of education, employment, and communication opportunities for low-income and rural residents are greatly limited. California suffers a significant digital divide through the substantial differences in broadband access among population groups and regions. Many rural and remote communities have no access at all. As an example, only 55 percent of San Joaquin Valley residents have a home broadband connection versus 70 percent in the Bay Area.
California’s lawmakers announced plans in AB 156 to allocate $6 billion dollars to deploy broadband infrastructure, with a particular focus on areas that have historically been unserved or underserved. The State will partner with existing providers as well as local governments and agencies to build and maintain new broadband lines. Specifically, the bill directs $3.25 billion to build “middle-mile” broadband lines, which connect the greater highway of broadband service to the “last mile,” which are end users. AB 156 also sets aside $2 billion for last-mile lines to connect consumer homes and businesses with local networks.
Make the most of existing infrastructure, while planning for future needs. One of the best practices is to make use of existing infrastructure capacity prior to undertaking more costly and time-consuming infrastructure projects. Evaluate if infill development and/or infill infrastructure improvements may be more effective than an outward expansion of infrastructure. Water conservation and composting programs may also extend the capacity of water and sewer systems.
Other options may be limited. Development-related moratoriums related to housing may be limited based on SB 330 and practicably by the courts when moratoria are enacted. Typically, water or sewer districts may limit connections when there is a health and safety concern (e.g., not enough supply to satisfy demand or a treatment plant at capacity and at risk of improper discharge) and they declare an emergency and issue moratoria on new service connections. These denials, however, may be vulnerable to challenge when it can be shown that the moratoria are done as a pretext to a no-growth policy, or when they are done arbitrarily or discriminatorily.
Comprehensive infrastructure planning. Typically, public works departments and/or utility districts are responsible for developing a Capital Improvement Program (CIP) that is adopted by the legislative body (council or board) that addresses needs within a community. CIPs are also useful resources for planners as they indicate where improvements are being planned, funding sources, and timing. Finally, these departments/districts have extensive knowledge of existing conditions and have excellent mapping resources (GIS) and other tools that can help identify existing capacities.
A specific plan may be another option to address infrastructure planning, particularly in areas anticipating significant growth. Specific plans are required under Government Code § 65451(a)(2) to identify proposed major components of infrastructure needed to support planned land uses. Additionally, existing specific plans could provide useful examples of infrastructure planning.
Relevant State Law
California Department of Water Resources, Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA).
California Department of Water Resources, Urban Water Management Plans (UWMPs).
California Legislative Information, Senate Bill No. 8, Chapter 161, SB 330 (Housing Crisis Act of 2019 – Now extended by SB 8) (September 16, 2021).
California Legislative Information SB 1087 (2005) Water and Sewer Service Priority for Lower-Income Households (Government Code § 65589.7), requires cities and counties to immediately forward their adopted housing element to water and sewer providers. This law requires water and sewer providers to establish specific procedures to grant priority service to housing with units affordable to lower-income households.
A survey of city and county planners conducted for the San Joaquin Valley Regional Early Action Planning (REAP) Report asked about constraints to building new housing, including specific questions on infrastructure. “In your opinion, what are the three most critical housing issues facing your city or county?” Inadequate infrastructure was one of the top three responses (37.5 percent of respondents). The survey asked, “Which are the key physical constraints on the production of housing in your city or county?” The highest rated response, on a scale of 1 to 5, was water infrastructure (4.94), followed by sewer capacity infrastructure (4.91), and water supply (4.72). Infrastructure limitation was identified by 43.7 percent of respondents as limiting their ability to annex land. The survey also asked, “How can the San Joaquin Valley region and the State help to accelerate housing production?” Four out of the 20 responses discussed infrastructure needs to accelerate housing production.
Stakeholder interviews cited water supply as a critical issue for supporting increased housing supply. They also identified the lack of sewer and water infrastructure in greenfield areas as an impediment to new development. They also noted that the high cost of infrastructure improvements is a constraint to the production of housing, especially affordable housing. In identifying opportunities for increasing housing, infrastructure planning and funding is key ‒ priority infill areas should be regionally identified and ranked for funding opportunities.
Stakeholders suggested that jurisdictions should find ways to incentivize infill plans and programs, also noting that priority infill areas should be regionally identified and ranked for funding opportunities. Infrastructure assistance was also cited as a best practice (e.g., the Fresno COG plan that enables developers to request funding for infrastructure improvements for high-density projects).
Based on the MPO directors’ comments, water and wastewater infrastructure capacity constraints seem to be a universal problem. A variety of factors limit system capacity:
In some cases (San Joaquin, Merced, Tulare), older systems cannot accommodate the needs of higher density infill development.
In Stanislaus, both water sources and water system capacity are constraints.
In Merced, water quality is also a concern.
In Merced and Stanislaus, wastewater system capacity or service area limitations are constraints.
Some of the older systems are also increasingly difficult to maintain. Funding sources are limited for both the maintenance and expansion of existing systems.
California Department of Housing and Community Development, Analysis of Sites and Zoning (Including Adequate Infrastructure Capacity.
California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley, San Joaquin Valley Regional Broadband Consortium PRIMER (August 20, 2012).
California Broadband Council, Broadband Action Plan 2020.
Power Technology, Westlands Solar Park, California (May 20, 2020).
California Public Utilities Commission, CPUC Orders Historic Clean Energy Procurement To Ensure Electric Grid Reliability and Meet Climate Goals (June 24, 2021).
California Natural Resources Agency, Renewable Energy Transmission Initiative (RETI) 2.0 Gateway.