justin salters

Justin Salters

California faces a statewide drinking water crisis that affects a million Californians each year, but most of us have no idea what’s going on.

In 2017, the California State Water Board identified more than 300 public water systems that were out of compliance with federal drinking water standards. Many of the communities served by these systems – often in rural, disadvantaged areas of the state – have gone without safe drinking water for years.

Further, about 2 million Californians rely on domestic wells and small water systems that are not regulated by the state. We don’t even know the full extent to which these Californians lack safe drinking water.

Past use of nitrogen fertilizers for agriculture may have resulted in nitrates reaching groundwater, potentially causing contamination. But today’s agricultural practices have evolved significantly, and the potential for nitrate contamination has been reduced or eliminated.

That said, nitrates from agriculture aren’t the only contaminants affecting California’s drinking water. Contaminants like arsenic, chromium-VI, 123 TCP, coliform and others represent a public health emergency that demands our attention.

How do we address the state’s drinking water crisis and ensure that every Californian has access to safe drinking water?

For years, the State Water Board has called for the creation of an ongoing funding source for the state’s safe drinking water needs. Existing state and federal funds, while helpful in meeting some of the needs for capital investments, cannot be used for the operations and maintenance costs associated with drinking water treatment.

Last year, state Sen. Bill Monning of Monterey introduced SB 623 to establish the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund. The bill, co-authored by a bipartisan group of state senators and Assembly members including our Sen. Andy Vidak, was the culmination of years of engagement between agriculture, the environmental justice community and other stakeholders to identify an equitable and effective method to ensure every Californian has access to safe drinking water.

The bill would provide dedicated, ongoing funding for safe drinking water projects. Funding would come from a fertilizer fee, a safe drinking water fee on dairies, and a small safe drinking water fee assessed monthly on water bills.

Now, before you let the “f” word (fee, that is) cause knee-jerk opposition, consider the facts.

The combined fees would raise about $140 million annually in the first two years. Then, fees could be adjusted by the State Water Board based on projected needs. The bill also includes statutory caps on all fees.

For most homes and business, the monthly fee would be no more than 95 cents.

You read that correctly: the cost of ensuring every Californian has access to safe drinking water is less than 3 cents per day.

Low-income families would be exempt from the fee. The largest industrial users would pay no more than $10 per month.

In addition to generating the funding needed to ensure every Californian has access to safe drinking water, SB 623 would provide certainty to agricultural operations regarding enforcement actions and clean up and abatement actions from the state and regional water boards. All they would have to do is comply with conditions that help move the state toward meeting its groundwater quality objectives. The ag certainty provisions would sunset within 15 years, but by that time the fund should have generated enough money to address our most dire drinking water needs.

The fund is vitally important to communities in the Central Valley.

According to Vidak, SB 623 “will have an incredibly positive impact on the lives of tens of thousands of residents in the Central Valley who don’t have access to safe, clean water.”

Vidak, a farmer himself, was happy to see the diverse coalition of community health, environmental and ag groups come together to develop short- and long-term drinking water solutions for the state.

Sadly, SB 623 and its hopes for a safe drinking water fund stalled in committee last fall.

Until last week, when the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Act received an endorsement from Gov. Jerry Brown and its first committee hearing as part of the State Water Board’s budget trailer bill.

Opponents of the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund think that funding should come from the state’s General Fund. Anyone familiar with the state budget process knows how unreliable this proposal is.

Consider two hypothetical scenarios without the Safe Drinking Water Fund.

Local farmers and dairymen could be forced to pay out-of-pocket for replacement water, clean up and abatement activities for problems they didn’t cause.

Or, the State Water Board could order consolidation of water systems, forcing ratepayers in areas with safe drinking water to fund the cost of treatment via rate increases. Increases all but guaranteed to be more than $1 per month.

No Californian should wonder if the politics of budget negotiations will leave them without safe drinking water. Passing the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Act, whether via SB 623 or the budget trailer bill, is the right thing to do.

Americans send millions of dollars to charities to provide people in the developing world with safe and clean drinking water. Meanwhile, our neighbors are receiving shipments of bottled water because they can’t trust their taps. Something isn’t right.

As Vidak told me, “Clean water isn’t a Republican issue, and it’s not a Democrat issue. We owe it to our neighbors to ensure that everyone has access to clean water.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Contributing columnist Justin Salters writes weekly on politics, culture and civic engagement; the views expressed are his own. Like his Facebook Page at Facebook.com/thatjustinsalters or email him your thoughts: justin@justinsalters.com.

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