A coalition of California residents affected by unsafe drinking water held a symbolic “water strike” at the Capitol on Wednesday, pressing lawmakers to fund a plan that would clean up their water sources.
More than 1 million Californians lack access to clean drinking water, according to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration. An additional 2 million people are vulnerable to contamination, according to the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund Coalition.
“We cannot claim to be the Golden State when we have 1 million Californians without access to clean and affordable water,” said Daniel Peñaloza, City Council Member from Porterville in Tulare County. “This is an injustice and a disgrace.”
Newsom in January released a budget proposal that included a new $140 million water tax to fund infrastructure projects in communities with unsafe water. The “fee,” as the governor’s proposal called it, would have cost all Californians on public water systems an additional $11.40 a year.
He promoted his plan with his first trip out of Sacramento following the budget’s release, when he took his cabinet to a community in Stanislus County that has long struggled with unsafe drinking water.
“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 the January visit.
The proposal was met with opposition in the Senate, where lawmakers rejected the governor’s plan for a monthly charge on ratepayers and instead recommended paying for a water-system improvements with $150 million from the state’s general fund.
Opponents of the water fee say that imposing an ongoing tax for a “one time infrastructure problem” is unnecessary when the state is enjoying a budget surplus.
This week, Newsom’s administration and lawmakers are negotiating a final budget and it’s unclear which plan will emerge. State law requires them to pass a final budget by June 15.
Demonstrators at the rally urged lawmakers to prioritize permanent access to safe drinking water for all Californians. The bilingual rally, held in English and in Spanish, was co-hosted by the Community Water Center and the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability.
Lining the grass lawn of the Capitol’s North Steps were posters listing communities affected by unsafe drinking water and the contaminants found in their water. Many of them were schools and school districts.
For Melynda Metheney, a 32-year-old resident of Tulare County, fighting for clean water means supporting “communities that don’t have the resources or finances” to maintain their water systems. She and her family lacked access to safe drinking water for over a year when the main well in her town of West Goshen collapsed in 2012, exacerbating an ongoing nitrate contamination.
“We couldn’t even take showers with our water,” she said. “We couldn’t even boil our water to cook and clean with. We couldn’t touch it.”
Many Californians affected by unsafe water, like Metheney, must front additional costs to purchase bottled water.
“Our families are paying double for water,” said Lucy Hernandez, 50, also from West Goshen. “It’s [the state’s] responsibility to provide us with safe drinking water since we are paying a huge water bill every month.”
Communities of color and low-income communities are disproportionately affected by the water crisis, according to Kelsey Hinton, the communications manager at the Community Water Center.
“Some of our communities have been waiting a decade for a solution to this problem,” she said, “which is why we’re here in support of passing a safe and affordable drinking water solution by June 15.”