California cannot wait on clean drinking water crisis. Speaker Rendon, let legislators vote

The disgracefully high number of Californians who don’t have clean drinking water is a full-on crisis that deserves an urgent response.

So Gov. Jerry Brown and a bipartisan group of legislators are right to try again with a revised plan to get more money flowing to ease this public health emergency.

They faced intense opposition to what critics labeled a “water tax” – a small levy on customer bills – in their original plan, which also included new fees on farms and dairies.

In June, to get a deal done on the state budget, Brown and other supporters abandoned the plan. Instead, legislators allocated $23.5 million for safe drinking water, plus $5 million to get lead out of the water at child care centers.

But California still desperately needs a reliable source of annual funding – separate from the ups and downs, and demands of the state general fund – to help poor communities, in particular, with the operation and maintenance of drinking water treatment systems.

The new plan is spelled out in two bills.

Senate Bill 844 keeps the mandatory fees on agriculture and increases the levy on fertilizer mills. It would require a two-thirds majority to pass. In Senate Bill 845, the mandatory “water tax” changes into a “voluntary fee” on local water bills that customers could opt out from paying. Because it’s voluntary, it doesn’t require two-thirds majority.

Supporters calculate that a fee of 95 cents a month – if the projected 29 percent of customers opt out – would raise about $90 million a year. Added to the projected farm fees, that would equal the $140 million a year that a recent study estimated is required.

More than 1 million residents are potentially being exposed to unsafe water, mostly in poor communities and in the Central Valley, according to a state report. A McClatchy investigation this year found that about 360,000 Californians are customers of water systems that violate state standards for nitrates, arsenic and other contaminants.

This plan isn’t ideal, but it’s the best option right now. And it is backed by many environmental, health, labor and other groups.

If supporters hoped, however, that the change to a voluntary fee would win over urban water agencies, they were sorely mistaken.

The Association of California Water Agencies, which represents more than 430 public water agencies among 3,000 community water suppliers statewide, is staunchly opposed to SB 845. It complains that it is a “costly and complicated” scheme that would require agencies to “first solicit and then collect donations on customers’ local water bills to bypass local needs.”

The plan’s supporters are trying to address the concerns. They’re willing to delay the voluntary levy until 2020 to give local water agencies and the California State Water Resources Control Board more time to get ready. And they say the measure will clarify that agencies can be reimbursed for implementation costs.

The urban districts do suggest an alternative – adding another voluntary check-off on state income tax forms. But that isn’t a real solution. Clean drinking water would have to compete with 24 other causes – Alzheimer’s and cancer research, the arts, food aid, sea otters and more – for the favor of taxpayers. Only one even reached $500,000 in 2018.

The bills – authored by Sen. Bill Monning, a Carmel Democrat, and co-authored by Sen. Andy Vidak, a Hanford Republican – are being held in the Assembly Rules Committee. Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon’s office says he is still talking to stakeholders and had no further comment.

Time is running out – the session is supposed to end Aug. 31 – and if the bills get through the Assembly, they still must go back to the Senate for a final vote before reaching Brown’s desk.

So after negotiations – and whatever his reservations may be – Rendon should let the Assembly vote on this plan.

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