California drinking water tax bill faces an uphill battle

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A California budget trailer bill that would add a fee to water bills to insure safe drinking water in disadvantaged areas faces an uphill battle, based on testimony in the state's Senate finance committee.

The Association of California Water Agencies, League of California Cities and many of the state’s water agencies voiced opposition. The state’s agricultural interests have paired with environmental groups to support the bill that would clean up nitrate pollution from fertilizer and livestock.

While ACWA believes that providing access to safe drinking water for all California residents should be a priority in the state, the association opposes a statewide tax on drinking water, said Wendy Ridderbusch, ACWA’s director of state legislative relations.

The budget trailer measure that Gov. Jerry Brown proposed in January is based on Senate Bill 623, a two-year bill from 2017 introduced by Senator Bill Monning, D-Carmel, that is currently before the Senate and Assembly budget committees.

The bill would establish a fund to finance projects that provide clean, safe and affordable water in areas without it.

It would impose fees of 95-cents on most water users and $4 to $10 a month for heavier business and industry users. It would not take effect until July 1, 2020. It would also impose fees on the sale of fertilizer and dairy producers. The fees are expected to generate $140 million a year.

ACWA has taken an oppose-unless-amended position, said Ridderbusch. The Association argues that the money should come from the general fund, existing federal funds for safe drinking water, general obligation bond funds, and the proposed assessments on agriculture related to nitrates in groundwater.

“The problem requires a unique solution,” said Jonathan Nelson, policy director for Community Water Center, an advocacy organization that supports the bill. “The communities we are working with in the Central Valley are small.”

Those communities are often unable to come up with matching funds necessary to secure state water bond money or federal funding, Nelson said. The fund would provide that money.

The issue became more acute during the several years of drought in California that ended in April 2017, as drinking water had to be trucked into some areas. Drought conditions combined with pollution from nitrates used to fertilize crops and livestock leaching into the water created a shortage of safe drinking water in some areas. The agricultural-rich Joaquin Valley in the center of the state was hit particularly hard.

More than 300 drinking water systems that serve roughly 200,000 people in disadvantaged communities are unable to provide safe drinking water, because of pollutant violations, such as arsenic, lead, nitrates, and uranium, according to a State Assembly analysis of the bill. The pollution also has been linked to nausea and vomiting, cancer, reduced mental function in children, nervous system decline, and miscarriages, according to the bill.

The bill would also protect agricultural operations from being subjected to enforcement actions over exceeding nitrate levels in groundwater, provided farmers meet existing permit requirements.

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