In the world’s fifth largest economy, in the richest state in the richest nation, some 360,000 Californians have water that is unsafe to drink.
That’s the equivalent of about three and a half Flint, Michigans, and it’s an outrage. Worse, it’s a fixable outrage, and the fix is being blocked by vested interests. This stalemate has gone on for more than a year now at the stateCapitol while vulnerable families, many of them in the Central Valley, have lived as if this is a Third World country. Yet state leaders have let a solution slip through their fingers – again.
Those who imagine that living without potable water is somehow not that awful might want to glance at some of the video in the report by Dale Kasler, Phillip Reese and Ryan Sabalow in last Sunday’s Sacramento Bee. The report, gathered from McClatchy newspapers throughout California, was wrenching: Delta families in Isleton living with brown tap water full of arsenic. Farm workers outside Fresno who have complained for decades that their water stinks of chemicals and agricultural runoff. School kids near Modesto whose drinking fountains are so hazardous that they’ve not only been shut off, but, for good measure, covered in plastic.
And these cases are just a drop in the proverbial bucket. McClatchy’s analysis of data compiled by the State Water Resources Control Board found that at least 6 million Californians, in more than half of the state’s 58 counties, are served by water providers that have been in violation of state standards at some point since 2012, when California made its first attempt to address this issue, by passing the then-mostly-symbolic Human Right to Water Act.
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Supplying safe drinking water to these communities isn’t rocket science. There is nothing about the 300 or so impacted water districts that hasn’t been fixed elsewhere. Part of the problem is collateral damage from commercial agriculture, in which nitrates from fertilizer and manure have seeped into the groundwater. Part stems from California’s last drought, when aggressive pumping lowered the water tables and worsened the prevalence of naturally occurring contaminants such as arsenic.
But all of it can be addressed if sufficient resources are funneled on a sustained basis to the relevant water districts, most of which are too small and impoverished to individually upgrade their water infrastructures. In fact, last year, Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel, introduced Senate Bill 623, the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund, a compromise hammered out among a broad group of businesses, farmers, environmentalists and human rights advocates. The bill would have assessed agricultural fertilizer distributors and dairy farmers, and supplemented it with a nominal fee on California water bills to ensure clean drinking water statewide.
It ended up being shelved, thanks to protests from large urban water districts who don’t want to pay for a primarily rural water problem and who worry that more impositions may follow. They argue the money should come from the state’s general fund. In an ideal world, they’d be right.
But in this world, the general fund varies too much from year to year and funding is too easily derailed to create the steady, assured revenue stream that small water districts need to underwrite modern water treatment plant improvements. With no source of ongoing revenue, small districts can’t qualify for construction funds, and they can’t use loans and bonds to cover operating and maintenance costs.
“Let’s be clear,” wrote Felicia Marcus and Karen Ross of the state Water Resources Control Board and Department of Food and Agriculture in a Sacramento Bee op-ed. “Existing funds would not provide the kind of multi-year funding guarantee needed to secure capital financing and maintain critical water infrastructure 24 hours a day.”
This year, Gov. Jerry Brown proposed a tax similar to the one in SB 623 to ensure clean drinking water. It would have assessed fertilizer, dairy production and livestock feedlots to the tune of about $30 million annually, and required the rest of California’s water drinkers to kick in a total of about $110 million a year with a levy that, for residents, would amount to about a buck a month on their water bill.
But urban water districts fearmongered about a first-ever “water tax” and carped that water districts shouldn’t be turned into tax collectors, and that more should be paid by agribusiness. But their alternatives are insufficient and delay the good in the name of the perfect. California already funds all sorts of other basic needs through utility bill assessments, including rural internet broadband and heating and cooling assistance for Californians who are elderly and low income.
Unfortunately, Brown and legislative leaders abandoned the measure as part of a proposed compromise on the state budget, disclosed Friday. Instead, they allotted $28.5 million in the general fund for testing and emergency relief.
It isn’t enough. This isn’t some optional civic nicety we’re dickering over. This is children being unable to brush their teeth or bathe because of the toxic gunk flowing out of the bathroom faucet. This is 21st century California. There is simply no excuse for water that isn’t safe.