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Ag industry is stepping up for safe drinking water

Sean Earley, general manager of Richvale Irrigation District, checks a rice field in 2015. Tens of thousands of Californians have to use bottled water because of contaminants in their drinking water. The Legislature is debating how to pay for helping them.
Sean Earley, general manager of Richvale Irrigation District, checks a rice field in 2015. Tens of thousands of Californians have to use bottled water because of contaminants in their drinking water. The Legislature is debating how to pay for helping them. mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

If there’s one thing a farmer knows, it’s the importance of water. Access to clean, safe drinking water ought to be a fundamental right for all Californians.

But there are about 300 unsafe drinking-water systems across the state, many of them in the Salinas Valley or in the Central Valley’s Tulare Lake Basin. These 1 million Californians must buy or obtain drinking water in jugs or bottles.

 
Opinion

That is why the California Rice Commission, the Western Growers Association and other agriculture industry leaders have stepped up to support a balanced, sustainable solution to this unacceptable public health problem, which is greater in scope than the well-chronicled crisis in Flint, Mich.

Senate Bill 623 by Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel, would create a Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund to provide emergency relief and also fund water-treatment facilities that these small water systems cannot possible afford on their own.

Funding would come from two sources. Because in many cases the water is contaminated by nitrates, an unavoidable byproduct of farming operations, a growing number of agricultural industry leaders are supporting a small fee to cover nitrate-related costs. The bill would also provide regulatory certainty for farmers while they continue to reduce the impact of fertilizers on groundwater.

Also contributing to the problem are other contaminants, such as arsenic and perchlorate, that are not related to agricultural operations. It is a statewide problem, so the legislation includes a statewide solution – a modest fee of less than $1 a month on the water bills for residents and businesses. Low-income households would be exempted.

This approach is similar to basic services as electricity; all customers pay a small fee to ensure that low-income families have access to a necessity. These water systems serve small, mostly rural communities of mostly low-income families who can’t afford to buy water, on top of paying their water bill. Some families are spending up to 10 percent of their incomes on drinking water.

It is a third-world problem that cannot be tolerated in a state as prosperous and proud as California. It’s long past time that the Legislature, working with state and local water agencies and rural communities, produced a sustainable solution. Such a solution is at hand, and it is a bipartisan plan supported not just by farm groups, but also environmental groups such as Clean Water Action and health groups such as the American Heart Association.

The fact that 1 million Californians cannot use water from their taps to mix baby formula, make iced tea, brush their teeth or simply quench their thirsts ought to be unacceptable. It is a problem we are morally compelled to solve.

Tim Johnson is president and CEO of the California Rice Commission. He can be contacted at tjohnson@calrice.org.

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