Last year’s methodologically-challenged UC Davis study of nitrate contamination of groundwater in the Salinas Valley and Tulare Lake Basin has prompted a predictable wave of interest by state legislators. Several bills on the subject have been introduced in the new legislative session and hearings are beginning to ramp up.
In the wake of the release of the UC Davis study, environmental justice groups immediately began calling for a new tax on agricultural fertilizer sales to fund clean drinking water in affected communities. WG and other industry groups pushed back, noting both the flaws in the UC Davis research and the fact that nitrate present in groundwater today is a legacy problem created decades ago by numerous sources. No one disputes that agricultural activities of decades past, including dairies and produce farming, contributed to the presence of nitrate in groundwater today. Science and technology was far less advanced back then, and farmers used the best available knowledge of the time to produce a crop. They weren’t wrong to do so. Today’s farmers have the benefit of better science and technology, and as a result, nitrogen management practices have steadily improved, which is why is it wrong to punish today’s farmers for legacy nitrate contamination.
The Brown Administration convened the “Governor’s Drinking Water Stakeholder Group” last summer, and charged the group with identifying fast solutions that would get safe drinking water to communities with nitrate-contaminated supplies, or facing a potentially contaminated supply. Recognizing the conflict that a tax on agriculture fertilizer would generate, the Governor’s team explicitly directed the group to focus on other means of funding. A few agricultural organizations were named to the group, including WG, along with environmental justice groups, state agencies and local authorities.
The group produced a consensus report in August that identified several immediate measures to help local water systems provide clean drinking water. Estimates of funding needed range from $25 to $30 million annually. One of the most promising proposals called for regulatory streamlining of state-administered funds for upgrading local water systems and securing emergency drinking water supplies. Another proposal called for a $2 million pilot project in the Salinas Valley that would copy a similar project underway in the Tulare Lake Basin that studies ways to link nitrate-affected water systems to neighboring water agencies with clean water or advanced treatment capabilities. Legislation was hastily amended to advance these promising ideas, but the bills stalled as time ran out in the final days of the session.
Now, with a new Legislature in place, those two consensus bills are not the only ones dealing with the nitrate issue. At least two other bills will likely seek to impose a fertilizer tax.
WG will work aggressively with a large agriculture and crop-protection coalition to fight these proposals. As a new tax or fee, the bills require a two-thirds vote of the Legislature. With Democrats having reached the two-thirds threshold in the November election, the sledding will be tough.
We will also suggest a different approach to funding the problem of nitrate in groundwater. Nitrate is not the only groundwater contaminant confronting California. In fact, there are several contaminants present in groundwater basins that affect a far greater number of Californians, and some of those other contaminants pose a greater public health threat than nitrate. Groundwater basins in heavily populated parts of the state test positive for hexavalent chromium, perchlorate, arsenic and other contaminants. These are huge groundwater basins in urbanized areas. The affected basins are needed to supply drinking water to millions of people and businesses.
It is time for California to tackle its groundwater problem in a comprehensive way for the benefit of the entire state. In better times, the Legislature and Governor would consider a state general obligation bond to fund such a comprehensive solution. That may be an option again, and it might not require an entirely new bond measure; the water infrastructure bond passed by the Legislature in 2009 will be substantially amended and reduced by the Legislature this year. This presents a possible opportunity to address the comprehensive groundwater needs of the state.
Another idea some have floated is for a small fee on all water users in the state, known as a public goods charge, which would establish a permanent revenue stream that could be bonded against, with bond proceeds dedicated to state-administered groundwater cleanup and safe drinking water programs. Water agencies strongly oppose this mechanism, preferring to maintain local control of their ratepayers’ dollars.
Although we are only two months into a new two-year legislative session, we can be sure that the nitrate issue will be among our highest priorities. The road ahead looks difficult.
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