Soapbox

A statewide tax is an unfair way to safe drinking water

Water bottles line the entrance to Foothill Intermediate School in Loma Rica, where drinking water was contaminated in 2016. 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.
Water bottles line the entrance to Foothill Intermediate School in Loma Rica, where drinking water was contaminated in 2016. 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. Associated Press

For most Californians, safe drinking water is a given, thanks to extensive public investments in pipelines, reservoirs and treatment plants.

Not so for some Californians who live in rural, low-income communities where water sources are contaminated by nitrates and arsenic and where treatment is financially out of reach. It’s unacceptable, and the situation will worsen without a strong state commitment.

Unfortunately, an eleventh-hour effort is emerging in the Legislature to impose a statewide tax on residential and business water bills as part of the solution. As lawmakers return to Sacramento on Monday for the final four weeks of this year’s session, the tax will be inserted into Senate Bill 623 by Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel. Though the bill, which addresses safe drinking water for disadvantaged communities, has been through two policy hearings, the author is waiting until the final weeks to add the tax.

The Association of California Water Agencies has made it a high priority to develop effective solutions and advance sensible funding strategies to address this issue. As local water agency directors committed to safe and reliable water, we absolutely support the intent of the bill.

However, a tax on water is not the right approach. Taxing Californians for something that is essential to life does not make sense, especially when some are raising concerns about the affordability of water. To impose a statewide tax would turn local water agencies into tax collectors that send money to Sacramento.

There is a better approach that uses money from the state’s general fund, combined with federal safe drinking water funds, general obligation bond funds and a new assessment related to nitrates in groundwater.

The state already appropriately uses its general fund to pay for statewide priorities, including public health, education, housing, disability services and other programs that serve and protect residents and communities in need. The 2017-18 budget already includes a safe drinking water pilot program with $5 million from the general fund to assist residents served by public water systems that fail to meet safety standards.

What could be a higher priority for state funding than safe drinking water for our most vulnerable communities?

This critical issue comes down to leadership. If this is truly a priority for Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature, the state can make a general fund solution a reality – and California’s water agencies will stand firmly behind it.

Kathleen Tiegs, a director of the Cucamonga Valley Water District, is president of the Association of California Water Agencies and can be contacted at KathyT@cvwdwater.com. Brent Hastey, a director of the Yuba County Water Agency, is association vice president and can be contacted at bhastey@gmail.com.

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