May 11, 2018

Safe Drinking Water Bill Moving Toward Finish Line

A unique coalition of agricultural and environmental groups are close to realizing their goal of passing Senate Bill 623, which will create a “Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund” and shield growers from enforcement activities concerning nitrate contamination.

“We need everyone’s help right now,” said Gail Delihant, director of California government affairs for Western Growers, in late April. “We need a grass roots effort by our members in contacting their state legislators and urge them to pass this bill,” which is a budget trailer bill (BTB) that will probably come up for a vote in late June.

Emily Rooney, president of Agricultural Council of California, was equally steadfast in the need for rural legislators to step forward and support this bill. But, she was also extremely confident that success is at hand. “It will pass,” she predicted.

The bill was introduced by Sen. Bill Monning (D-Carmel) more than a year ago, with a goal of funding projects to assist disadvantaged communities that lack access to safe drinking water. The concept itself is not controversial. Delihant said there are many different contaminants from many different sources that impact California’s water supply. While nitrates from agriculture play a big role, so do many other compounds from other sources, including nature. Smaller, poorer water districts, mostly in rural California, that don’t have the rate payer base to fund the construction of huge water treatment facilities suffer disproportionately.

Delihant said it is a statewide problem that needs a statewide solution. She called it a “social problem.”

Monning began building support for his bill last year, working with both environmentalists and grower groups to fashion a bill that could gain broad support. Environmentalists supported the fund concept and wanted agriculture to be materially involved in the funding of it. Agricultural groups needed the State Water Board’s Office of Enforcement to cease its threatening enforcement actions against growers for causing nitrate contamination of drinking water wells. Those enforcement actions have been ongoing.

After months of negotiations, Delihant said the two sides reached agreement on those two main tenants of the bill. “In short, SB 623/BTB changes the California Water Code in a manner that keeps the State Board and Regional Board from bringing such nitrate enforcement actions for 10 years, and from bringing clean up and abatement actions for an additional five years,” she said.

At this writing, the money for the fund will come from several sources. A fee, or tax if you prefer, will be attached to every dollar of fertilizer sold in the state. For homeowners it will work out to six cents per $100 at their local home improvement store. For growers, the calculations will produce a $6 fee for every $1000 purchase of any fertilizer product. Dairies and non-dairy livestock facilities will also be paying into the fund. Further, a charge of 95 cents per month will be levied on every household throughout the state, with the exception of poor households that qualify for an exemption. Large industrial users will be charged $10 per month. Those funding sources combined are expected to generate $140 million annually.

It is the fee/tax collected via the water agencies that has been the cause of most of the opposition. The Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA), some city governments and anti-tax Republicans have come out against the bill. Delihant said discussions with rural Republicans are turning the tide and garnering support. It should also be noted that a significant number of ACWA members—especially those water agencies in rural areas—have supported SB 623. That group includes: Arvin-Edison Water Storage District, Belridge WSD, Berrenda Mesa Water District (WD), Kaweah Basin Water Conservation District, Kern Delta WD, Lost Hills WD, Semitropic WSD, Sultana Community Services District and Wheeler-Ridge Maricopa WSD.

Rooney said politics often create “strange bedfellows” but never more than in this fight. She noted that her board of directors specifically wanted a broad funding mechanism that included industrial and residential participation. “That was 180 degrees different than ACWA’s position,” she said, adding that ACWA and the Ag Council are typically aligned on water issues.

In this instance, ACWA, and many of the opponents, want the money to come from California’s General Fund. Rooney said the ag coalition was opposed to that funding source because of its unreliability. In poor economic times, the General Fund is often strapped “and that funding could dry up quickly,” she said.

Another anomaly is that the fund will largely tax urban users to build rural projects. Yet the urban legislators, mostly Democrats, are behind the effort while the rural legislators, largely Republican, are against the effort.

“Over the next several weeks, we are going to be out there telling the story of who this is going to help,” said Delihant.

She believes as it become clear that it is the constituents of the rural legislators who will receive the greatest benefits, minds will change. Rooney agreed, noting that discussions recently have revealed a lot of open minds willing to listen to the arguments by agriculture.

In Governor Brown’s proposed 2018-2019 budget, the summary document included language indicating the administration will be advancing the framework of SB 623. The California Department of Finance posted the budget trailer bill language February 1st with the SB 623 language essentially intact. However, Delihant said negotiations are always ongoing on such bills and Western Growers and its agricultural partners on this effort will be diligent in making sure no critical changes are made to the bill.