California can’t wait any longer for clean water

Farm workers pull up irrigation drip lines in a garlic field in Fresno County in 2015. Many farmers are relying more on groundwater.
Farm workers pull up irrigation drip lines in a garlic field in Fresno County in 2015. Many farmers are relying more on groundwater.

After years of the state’s mystifying failure to address a public health crisis that plagues about 1 million predominantly low-income residents, many advocates believed they had reached a breakthrough last year.

Alas, the solution did not materialize. So 2018 began with hundreds of thousands of families living without access to safe drinking water. This must be the year California changes that.


Last year, leading agricultural associations, public health organizations and environmental justice groups reached consensus on legislation that provides a sustainable, long-term solution. Given the breadth of support and the urgency of the problem, Senate Bill 623 should top the agenda for the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown. It appears it may well be: The governor showed extraordinary leadership in his budget proposal, allocating $5 million in startup funds.

The groundwater relied on by more than 300 water systems is often contaminated. Many have unsafe levels of arsenic, which can cause cancer and other serious illnesses.

Other groundwater wells have unsafe levels of nitrates, the result of a buildup of fertilizer essential to agriculture or of animal manure. Drinking water with high concentrations of nitrates can cause serious illness in infants and children by impeding the ability of their blood to carry oxygen.

The families who rely on these unsafe water systems are forced to buy bottled water for drinking, cooking and washing, even as they pay monthly water bills. Some families are spending as much as 10 percent of their incomes on water.

The solution is for these small water systems to treat the water so that it is safe when it reaches customers’ taps – a challenge they cannot possibly meet with their own limited resources.

The state water bond in 2014 provided some emergency funding and more is included in another water bond that will go before voters in June. But these funds cannot be used to help communities afford the ongoing cost of providing safe drinking water.

The only sustainable solution is to create an ongoing source of revenue. SB 623 creates such a fund, and does so equitably.

It establishes a small fee of less than $1 a month that all water users would pay, in much the same way that households have long paid a small monthly surcharge on their utility bills to ensure that low-income residents have affordable electricity.

In addition, with the support of such influential farming groups as the Agricultural Council of California, it establishes a small fee on agricultural users to address nitrate contamination as they continue to reduce the impacts of nitrates on groundwater.

It took years of discussion and negotiation to forge a solution to an unconscionable public health crisis that has no place in California. In 2017, that solution came together. In 2018, let us put it to work.

Jonathan Nelson is policy director of the Community Water Center and can be contacted at Emily Rooney is president of the Agricultural Council of California and can be contacted at