Capitol Alert

New fees proposed to pay for California's contaminated water problem

As part of his final budget proposal, Gov. Jerry Brown wants new fees on water to provide clean and affordable drinking water to the approximately 1 million Californians who are exposed to contaminated water in their homes and communities each year.

The fund would pay for short- and long-term improvements to water infrastructure and help clean up contaminated drinking water systems that affect primarily rural, low-income regions. The fund would rely on fees paid by residential and commercial water users as well as fertilizer and dairy producers.

About 100 state residents who lack access to clean drinking water will head to the Capitol today and join with several lawmakers to support Brown's proposal, which the Assembly Budget Subcommittee on Resources and Transportation will discuss during a hearing at 11 a.m. in Room 447.

The group will meet near the east steps of the Capitol at 11 a.m. and will have bottles containing contaminated water to present to lawmakers, according to a news release. Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-Azusa, and Assemblywoman Susan Talamantes Eggman, D-Stockton, are among the lawmakers joining the group.

Hernandez said he visited several predominantly low-income and Latino communities in the Central Valley last year that lack access to clean tap water. In many cases, the residents spend up to 10 percent of their income on purchasing clean drinking water, he said.

"These are like third-world conditions," Hernandez said. "No one in this state should have to be exposed to contaminated water."

Supporters of Brown's fund include environmental and agricultural groups who argue immediate action is necessary to save residents from contaminated drinking water.

Public water agencies are pushing back against the proposed fees, arguing that bonds and federal funds are a batter source of money.

Brown's plan would put the State Water Resources Control Board in charge of collecting fees from residents and businesses that use public water systems. Most residential water users would pay a fee of $0.95 per month, with that fee increasing based on meter size. Large commercial and industrial users would pay up to $10 per month.

In addition, the state Department of Food and Agriculture would collect fees from fertilizer producers and dairy handlers. Fertilizers and manure runoff contribute to groundwater contamination, exposing residents to harmful nitrates.

Low-income residents and agricultural operations that meet certain requirements would be exempt from the fees.

Brown's 2018-19 budget proposes $4.7 million to "take initial steps toward implementation" of the new fund, which includes hiring staff, developing fee collection systems and assessing how much ongoing funding may be needed to fix contaminated water systems.

The Legislative Analyst's Office, in submitted comments to the budget subcommittee, said a private consulting firm estimated the total annual cost of fighting contaminated drinking water would be $140 million.

That cost could be higher due to the lack of data on the number of smaller and private water systems that are contaminated, the LAO noted. The amount of revenue the fund could collect is also uncertain, the LAO said.

The State Water Resources Control Board has identified 331 public water systems in violation of federal maximum contaminant standards.

Pedro Hernández, policy advocate for the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, said the fund would support oversight and improvements of these private wells that the state has not previously regulated. Residents and infants in particular who drink from the wells have been vulnerable to contamination, he said.

"That general public health emergency is one reason why we, as an environmental justice group, support this fund," he said.

Pedro Hernandez said long-term support for clean drinking water programs is needed as other funding sources, such as Proposition 1, dry up. In addition, Hernandez said Brown's fund would be a stable, long-term source of money. Relying on the state's General Fund would not be as stable, as funding could be cut each year, he added.

The Association of California Water Agencies does not support Brown's current proposal due to its proposed tax on water users. The group would support Brown's plan if it removes that tax, said Cindy Tuck, ACWA's deputy executive director for government relations.

"We think it doesn't make sense to tax drinking water, which is essential to life," Tuck said.

ACWA and more than 135 public water agencies are instead proposing an alternative funding plan to ensure clean drinking water for state residents. Their plan calls for the use of federal safe drinking water funds, general obligation bonds and $34.4 million each year from the state General Fund.

The alternative plan would also use Brown's proposed fees on fertilizer producers and dairy handlers, Tuck said.

Tuck said another concern is the budget trailer bill process has not been as transparent and has not given the public or water agencies many opportunities to comment.

"We're concerned the public isn't aware the tax is being proposed," Tuck said. "All of (the water agencies) want to help solve the problem of contaminated drinking water, but they are opposed to the tax."

The 95-cents-a-month fee is less than the cost of a bottle of water or a cup of coffee, Pedro Hernández said.

"For that small fee, residents in California could help support other residents' rights to clean drinking water," he said.

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Billy Kobin: (916) 321-1860, @Billy_Kobin