May 8, 2019

California Needs Clean and Affordable Drinking Water

By Gail Delihant

The concept of having safe and affordable drinking water may seem simple, considering all the advanced technology we have available today. However, nothing is simple when it comes to water in California.

For more than four years, Western Growers staff has been cultivating relationships with environmental justice organizations to forge pathways that would ultimately protect growers from onerous drinking water replacement orders issued by the State Water Board Office of Enforcement (OOE). Odd as it may seem, adversity does make strange bedfellows.

At the end of the legislative session last year, the agriculture, environmental and business communities, as well as a whole host of other stakeholders including the Water Foundation, worked tirelessly to convince two-thirds of both houses to vote for Senator Bill Monning’s drinking water bill – SB 623. We could just about taste victory, but ultimately the bill stalled without a vote. Fierce opposition to the municipal water tax portion of the bill from the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA) played a significant role in halting progress. Fearing a replay of the fallout of the gasoline tax increase earlier in the session, which culminated in the recall of a Democratic state senator in Southern California, Speaker Anthony Rendon decided not to push members of his caucus to vote for another tax in an election year. Even Republicans from agricultural areas whose constituents were currently feeling the sting from the OOE were unwilling to support the bill—with the exception of now-former Senator Andy Vidak (Tulare).

ACWA’s alternative to the water tax? Establish a dedicated trust fund, infused by the general fund. While ACWA supported the imposition of fertilizer fees to fund nitrate contamination in ag areas, the association worried about the precedent of establishing a first-ever state charge on municipal water connections. “With the state’s record budget surplus, the timing is perfect for the state to establish and fund the Safe Drinking Water Trust,” said Cindy Tuck of ACWA.

Senator Anna Caballero (D-Salinas) carried their bill last year, which also failed to pass, and is attempting it again this year. 

When Gavin Newsom was newly elected governor, he publicly declared that access to clean affordable drinking water was a priority. During his first State of the State address, he said “We have a big state with diverse water needs. Cities that need clean water to drink, farms that need irrigation to keep feeding the world, fragile ecosystems that must be protected…

“Just this morning, more than a million Californians woke up without clean water to bathe in or drink. Some schools have shut down drinking fountains due to contamination. Some poorer communities, like those I visited recently in Stanislaus County, are paying more for undrinkable water than Beverly Hills pays for its pristine water.

“This is a moral disgrace and a medical emergency…Solving this crisis demands sustained funding. It demands political will.”

There are now several vehicles to address this issue. To show his strong support, Governor Newsom proposed a Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Trailer Bill, which is essentially SB 623 from last year. With backing from the Speaker, Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia (D-Coachella) introduced AB 217. Garcia’s legislation includes a monthly $0.50 water tax, fertilizer fees, $250,000 from the general fund for 5 years going into a trust account, and a promise to add enforcement protection language later. Both of these bills will require a two-thirds vote of the Legislature.

Additionally, Senate President Pro tem Toni Atkins has voiced concern about passing a water tax. As we understand it, she wants to see a majority vote for general fund money going to safe drinking water needs each year. Her proposal would not include new fertilizer fees, municipal water connection fees, or enforcement protection for farmers in compliance with state and regional water quality mandates.

Although everyone agrees that clean drinking water should be addressed this year, there is no certainty that the Legislature will muster the will to act. Conventional wisdom tells us that new governors elected by wide margins usually get what they want in their honeymoon year, especially when that governor is of the same party as the majority in the Legislature. Governor Newsom has made this a top priority and has aligned himself with the approach advocated by the agricultural-environmental justice coalition. It’s time to get this done.