Despite investing $1.75 billion to increase California’s housing supply last year, the state’s homeless population increased. And regional water boards are being tasked with determining if increased fecal bacteria polluting California waterways is a result of homeless encampment waste.
In Sacramento, regulators have been measuring elevated fecal bacteria levels in the American River for more than three years. The river, located in downtown Sacramento, is a popular destination for water sports enthusiasts, whose shores are populated by a large homeless population.
Tiscornia Beach, where families picnic and wade in the river, reports E. coli levels so high that they’ve reached the limits of what the water board’s laboratories are capable of measuring. Recent measurements indicate E.coli levels were more than seven times higher than the state standard, according to the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board.
The board is currently conducting a three-year DNA analysis to determine whether the bacteria comes from birds, dogs or people. If from people, the bacteria can come from sewage runoff, leaky septic systems, or from homeless encampments, which do not have plumbing and toilets that connect to sewage systems.
Both people and animals have E. coli in their feces, but human fecal contamination transmits what can be deadly diseases, including hepatitis A and cholera. People primarily get sick by ingesting polluted water, or if the bacteria enters the blood stream through open cuts or wounds.
The San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, stretching from Napa County to Santa Clara County, is working with some cities to conduct clean water pilot projects. They include offering free RV dump stations and sanitation services for encampments.
According to the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, fecal pollution on the streets is swept into the storm drains after it rains and is routed to the same treatment plants as toilet water.
The Central Coast Water Board issued an order to the city of Salinas to provide sanitation needs to homeless encampments.
Farther south, in San Diego, the state’s second-most populous county, dozens of homeless encampments line the 52-mile-long San Diego River, which flows into the Pacific Ocean. For decades, officials have recorded high levels of fecal bacteria in the river exceeding state safety standards.
Last year, the regional water board ordered San Diego County, several cities, and municipal agencies to determine the source of E. coli contamination. They were mandated to investigate the condition of leaky sewage infrastructures, and evaluate to what extent the homeless encampments on the riverbank, in parking lots, trailers and RVs were polluting the water.
Last fall, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sent a letter to California Gov. Gavin Newsom saying the state’s homeless population was creating a public health crisis by polluting its water. It also issued a notice to the city of San Francisco stating it violated the federal Clean Water Act.
The California Environmental Protection Agency responded by accusing the EPA of being “misguided.”
According to state data, roughly 150,000 Californians live on the streets or in shelters.
This year, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an executive order to expand the use of state-owned land "on a short-term emergency basis" to house the homeless. Empty health-care facilities, California Department of Transportation property next to highways and roads, and unused fairgrounds all could be made available to house the homeless.
His new budget proposal allocates an additional $1 billion to help local governments address homelessness and provide affordable housing. It also goes toward a new California Access to Housing and Services Fund, and invests $750 million in new affordable housing units and subsidies to rent.
Every year, an additional $500 million will be available from the state’s housing tax credit program as well, he said.
”Homelessness is a national crisis, one that’s spreading across the West Coast and cities across the country,” Newsom said in a statement. “The state of California is treating it as a real emergency – because it is one.”