Opinion

Water and the public health crisis

A water pathway in California's Central Valley. (Photo: Straight 8 Photography)

Many Californians know of the lead poisoning in the public water system in Detroit.  Very few know of the contaminated water crisis impacting more than 1 million Californians.

After years of trying to resolve the failure of the State of California to address this public health challenge, advocates have reached a historic negotiated agreement.

The breakthrough came last year when leading public health organizations, agricultural associations, and environmental justice advocates reached a consensus on legislation.

“We’re finally at a point where we could actually solve this,” Laurel Firestone, Co-Founder of the Visalia-based environmental justice nonprofit Community Water Center told the Los Angeles Times last summer.

The breakthrough came last year when leading public health organizations, agricultural associations, and environmental justice advocates reached a consensus on legislation that provides a sustainable, long-term solution to a crisis that prevents 300 water systems across the state and domestic wells in almost every county from providing clean water to the taps of hundreds of thousands of homes.

Without legislative action, 2018 began as did far too many years before: with hundreds of thousands of families living without access to safe drinking water.

The sentiment expressed last year that led to the development of such historic legislation still holds.  It is far past time to end the shame of a great state that allows so many of its residents to be denied a human right that California law professes to grant everyone: “the right to safe, clean, affordable and accessible water.”

2018 can be the year that California delivers on that promise.

Given its breadth of support and the urgency of the problem it addresses, creation of the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund should be at the top of the 2018 agenda for the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown.

The simple, sustainable solution is to create an ongoing source of revenue to support the operation of water treatment facilities and other investments necessary to secure permanent drinking water solutions

The importance of this issue is clear.  Drinking water sources for hundreds of drinking water systems and tens of thousands of domestic wells are contaminated and unsafe to drink.  Arsenic, Hexavalent Chromium and other, often naturally occurring contaminants, put residents at risk of cancer and reproductive complications.  Nitrates that seep through soils and into groundwater from fertilizer use, manure, and outdated septic systems can cause potentially fatal blue baby syndrome – a blood disorder that impedes the ability of blood to carry oxygen – and other dangerous conditions.

Often, the only solution is for these water systems and well owners to treat the water so that it is safe by the time it reaches the tap– a cost that small and lower income communities simply cannot afford given the high ongoing price tag of treatment.

As a result, families that rely on these unsafe water systems and wells must buy water in bottles or jugs for drinking and cooking – even as they continue to pay monthly water bills for the tainted water that runs through their taps.  The economic toll is severe; some families are spending as much as 10 percent of their incomes on water.

The simple, sustainable solution is to create an ongoing source of revenue to support the operation of water treatment facilities and other investments necessary to secure permanent drinking water solutions.  SB 623 creates such a fund, and does so equitably.

It establishes a small fee of less than $1 a month per household that most water users would pay – in much the same way that Californian households have long paid a small monthly surcharge on other utility bills to ensure that low-income residents have access to basics such as affordable electrical power.

In addition, with the support of such influential farming groups as the Western Growers Association, SB 623 establishes a small fee for agricultural users to address nitrate contamination. They would pay the fee even as they continue to work to reduce the impacts of nitrates on groundwater from their farming operations.

It took years of discussion and negotiation among communities and interest groups to forge this momentous solution- a solution that can bring the promise of safe, clean drinking water to all Californians soon.  In 2017, we reached consensus on a solution.  In 2018, the Legislature and the Governor can bring this solution to the people.  The time to act is now.

Ed’s Note: State Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel, a member of the Natural Resources and Water Committee, represents the 17th Senate District.


  • George Watters

    Wow, how can he even write this! The truth and reality is this proposed TAX ranges from $1 to $10 per month depending on size of meter, aiming to collect approximately $170 million per year, while the agriculture/dairy/fertilizer folks, who are the primary polluters, pay a max of $30 million a year, and receive get out of jail free cards for being such nice collaborators. Crazy deal since the normal California SWRCB or RWQCB approach is polluter pays when they mess up the groundwater! In this case, they get to pay 10-15% of total cost while taxpayers get shafted again! I think we all agree there are some issues that need resolution, somewhat self-inflicted by those who work and reside there, but this is a social issue that is best supported by the general fund. Let’s see, somewhere near $5 Billion surplus, which is already taxpayer money, should be used first. And this is just tip of iceberg, as the State Water Board and some legislators plan additional $5/meter/month (for 1-inch or under, more for larger meters) taxes for future low income assistance programs, and CA water plan anticipates another $5/meter tax or fee for statewide water programs. So, the average residential water customer is looking at $15/month more tacked on their water bill! There are other avenues to resolve these problems, but the legislators and State Board don’t want to listen. Shame on them!

  • RRDon

    Then there is the issue of Safe Harbor from enforcement for Ag so that opens door to more communities without access to clean drinking water as we attempt to address the existing impairments! The bills goal of meeting the human right to water is supported by all but this bill is not a “negotiation” it’s a clear Pay to Pollute scheme and ratepayers are bailing out wealthy farmers who’s nitrate use polluted the water in first place – solving a huge problem by creating new ones

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