Soapbox

Agricultural polluters are trying to hijack a clean water bill in California

In 2009 Daniel Gonzalez of Ceres takes a drink from a water dispenser in the Monterey Park neighborhood where well water was declared unsafe to drink by the state.
In 2009 Daniel Gonzalez of Ceres takes a drink from a water dispenser in the Monterey Park neighborhood where well water was declared unsafe to drink by the state. Sacramento Bee file

Five years ago, California took the bold step of establishing a basic human right to “safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking, and sanitary purposes." This right is of utmost importance to those rural communities whose drinking water has been contaminated by pesticides and nitrates from fertilizer.

But now polluters are seeking to avoid their legal responsibilities by hijacking a well-intentioned bill, Senate Bill 623.

SB 623 – its main proposals could be heard by a Senate budget subcommittee as soon as Thursday – would do one good thing and one very bad thing.

Terry Tamminen.jpg
Terry Tamminen

As originally drafted, the bill would establish a fund to assist for communities and individuals whose wells are polluted. Every Californian should support this effort. We have benefited from inexpensive food grown on the backs of farm workers living in these rural communities. In the richest state of the world's richest nation, absolutely no one should be consuming or bathing in dangerously polluted water.

But the bill would also perpetuate agricultural pollution. In the last few years, state water agencies and non-profit organizations have begun to press for better farm practices to reduce water contamination. In response, the agribusiness lobby has added language to SB 623 that would give industrial farms, livestock feed lots, sprawling wineries and others a pass on cleaning up their operations.

Opinion

The “safe harbor” provisions would shield farm operators who pay into the fund from enforcement of basic water quality protection requirements, even though under the best-case scenario, they are collectively expected to contribute only about $30 to 40 per year for each of the estimated one million Californians using contaminated wells.

That's hardly enough for a month's worth of bottled water delivery, let alone adequate treatment or long-term cleanup. And in return, farm operations would be exempted from water quality and cleanup requirements, allowing them to continue polluting with impunity.

California has never embraced such a pay-to-pollute scheme, and we cannot start now, particularly as industries have unprecedented power in Washington, D.C.

The basic concept behind SB 623 remains sound – to fund a program to provide safe water to every Californian while we figure out how to clean up the mess that agricultural dischargers have created. But exempting those polluters from clean-up responsibility for a few pennies on the dollar is a terrible idea.

Terry Tamminen, a former secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, is CEO of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation. He can be contacted at tt@ldcfoundation.org.
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