Californians with unhealthy drinking water pleaded for help from lawmakers this week but opposition quickly developed to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposal to pay for system improvements with a new fee.
“We just upped our water rates, and to turn around and give them a tax on their meter is just not feasible,” said Maxine Israel, director at the Cabazon Water District, which serves about 2,500 customers near Palm Springs.
She was among dozens of water experts and advocates who crowded a hearing on Wednesday to discuss how the state can deliver system improvements that would help nearly 1 million Californians who lack access to safe drinking water.
Newsom last month released a state budget that called for a new fee on drinking water to fund drinking water projects. He did not release many details, but the proposal was characterized as similar to a 2017 bill by Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel, that would have generated $140 million a year for water projects.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
Newsom just after releasing the spending plan called attention to the drinking water proposal by visiting communities in Stanislaus County that are known for delivering water from wells that are contaminated with nitrates and arsenic.
“It’s a disgrace that in a state as wealthy and resourceful as ours that a million-plus people don’t have access to safe, clean drinking water,” he said during his January visit to a neighborhood in Ceres known as the Monterey Park Tract.
Monning’s proposal included a 95 cent monthly tax on residential customers, along with other fees attached to fertilizer purchases and dairy and feedlot production.
“We believe the ratepayer piece is the critical component to creating a guaranteed and predictable source of funding,” Monning said.
He argued that the proposed fund, which has been called a “water tax” by critics, would make money consistently available for the operation and maintenance of water treatment plants in addition to the construction and improvement of them.
A couple dozen residents from the San Joaquin Valley attended the hearing. Several of them spoke in Spanish in rushed testimony while lawmakers tried to wrap up what became a three hour event.
“Please help us have safe drinking water for all human beings,” one said.
Simona Magaña, a Tulare County resident, expressed her support of the tax. The owner of a private well, said she was without water for two years and relied on her neighbor who would bring clean water over in barrels.
“I would sit down and cry a lot from the sadness that we live in the richest country in the world and have to go through this,” she said.
But some advocates aren’t convinced that a tax is the best way to address the state’s clean water crisis.
“Why create a new tax when you have a huge budget surplus?” says Cindy Tuck, a deputy executive director at the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA).
California state government is on track to accumulate a $14.8 billion surplus, and the state is on pace to fill reserve accounts with an additional $16 billion, according to a November report from the Legislative Analyst’s Office.
The water agency association and the California Municipal Utilities Association support alternative legislation that would establish a “drinking water trust,” which would be funded initially with an infusion from the general fund during a surplus year.
Paul Jones, general manager of the Eastern Municipal Water District in Riverside County previewed the proposal and said it could cover operations, maintenance, and consolidation costs, among other things.
The outline cheered lawmakers who want to pay for drinking water improvements without making a new fee.
“I like the trust idea, I think it’s definitely viable” Assemblyman Devon Mathis, R-Visalia, said. “Quite frankly I think anything is better than a tax.”