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Toxic Taps

Unlikely Allies Push Bill to Solve California Drinking Water Crisis

Agriculture and environmental justice advocates are supporting legislation to create a fund for clean drinking water projects. But disputes over key components of the bill could derail it.

Written by Tara Lohan Published on Read time Approx. 10 minutes
State senator Bill Monning addresses a rally in July in Sacramento in support of legislation he authored, Senate Bill 623, which would create a fund for clean drinking water projects.Tara Lohan

SACRAMENTO – As the summer sun was warming up on a July morning, a crowd of nearly 100 people gathered on the north steps of the California Capitol, many having arrived stiff-legged after a four-hour bus ride.

They held signs with the names of their communities: Poplar, Seville, Yettem, Tooleville, East Orosi and waved blue flags that read “Agua Limpia” and “Clean Water.” Most were San Joaquin Valley residents, including children as young as 5, who woke up before dawn to travel to the state capital to voice their support for Senate Bill 623, the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund.

Some 200,000 people in such low-income, primarily Latino towns in California’s farm belt are saddled with water supplies chronically contaminated with agricultural pesticides, arsenic and other toxins. The bill, introduced by state senator Bill Monning (D-Carmel), is backed by the unlikely alliance of environmental justice groups and agriculture – two sides that have often sparred over environmental regulations. On this day, the state Assembly’s Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee was set to vote on the legislation.

If signed into law, SB 623 would establish a new funding source for communities that are unable to obtain safe drinking water. Unlike other funding mechanisms such as bonds, the fund could be used to pay for the operation and maintenance of water treatment plants, and not just for their construction. It would also prioritize assistance to low-income communities and low-income residents who rely on private wells.

SB 623 is the culmination of years of work to secure safe and affordable drinking water for all Californians,” says Veronica Garibay, the co-founder of the nonprofit Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability in Fresno, one of the bill’s backers. Advocates for the bill have called it the missing link needed to close the gap on the state’s drinking water crisis where over 1 million Californians don’t have access to safe drinking water, with small, rural communities in the San Joaquin Valley particularly hard-hit.

“It’s a drinking water crisis that is brought about in large part because there is a gap in the funding regime in terms of how we fund safe drinking water,” says Jonathan Nelson of Community Water Center, another group supporting the bill. “We have funding to do things like build a treatment plant for those that need it, but there is no funding to be able to operate it and maintain it, which means those communities that typically need drinking water treatment the most, often are the hardest pressed to afford it or simply can’t afford it at all.” He noted there are also an estimated 2 million people in the state who either rely on private wells or very small water systems that are not regulated closely or at all.

Tim Johnson, president of the California Rice Commission, whose group supports the bill, called the legislation an “audacious act” because of the coalition of agricultural and environmental justice supporters. “We’ve all met, we don’t agree on everything, but we do agree on this,” he says.

But the bill is not without its opponents. The Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA), which represents public water agencies, and 20 of its member agencies oppose the bill in its current form. They object to the legislation’s inclusion of private wells and county-regulated small water systems, and a possible plan to raise money for the fund by assessing a fee on water bills – a detail that’s not yet in the legislation but could be added soon.

The fiercest opposition has come from another wing of the environmental community. Several organizations that are part of the California Coastkeeper Alliance, a coalition advocating for clean water for communities and the environment, as well as the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations and the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance fear the environmental justice community gave away too much in collaborating with agriculture on the bill and set up a “pay to pollute” scheme to get agriculture’s buy-in. The bill would limit enforcement by water boards against agricultural operations for contributing to excessive nitrate in groundwater if the operation meets mitigation requirements, including paying a fee into the fund.

The bill breezed through the state Senate this spring, but a key component of SB 623 – how the fund will raise revenue – is still being negotiated and will determine whether the legislation makes it to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk.

Communities in Need

Sandra Meraz (left) traveled from Alpaugh to Sacramento in July to lend her support to Senate Bill 623, which would establish a fund for clean drinking water. (Tara Lohan)

Sandra Meraz has lived in Alpaugh since 1957. A speck on the map on the southwestern edge of Tulare County in the San Joaquin Valley, Alpaugh has just 1,000 residents, half of whom live below the poverty line, and a commercial district with little more than a Mexican restaurant and a grocery store.

Meraz lives on nearly an acre of land but the only thing growing in her yard is a single tree. “No grass, no flowers,” she says, adding that the town looks dead, in part because people are struggling to pay for rising water costs.

Alpaugh’s water supply has chronically violated limits on arsenic contamination for years. But the Alpaugh Community Services District has received a state grant to build a treatment system set to go online by May 2018. To prove the community can pay for the ongoing operation and maintenance of the facility, water rates are being increased 10 percent in 2017 and another 10 percent in 2018, followed by a 3 percent hike in 2019 and again in 2020. The cost also rises with water usage. Smaller households that use 10,000 gallons a month will be paying $60 a month this year, while those using 15,000 gallons will be paying $78 monthly.

“They have to raise it – we understand it,” says Meraz. “We need safe, clean water, but we also need assistance.” She says some community members, especially those with children, are struggling to pay new water rates. “We don’t want people moving out and we don’t want people shut down because they can’t pay the water.”

Bruce Howarth, general manager of the Alpaugh Community Services District, acknowledged that rates were a concern for some. “We had discussions about trying to set some internal process and funding to help out hardship cases,” he says.

Meraz says she traveled to Sacramento for the SB 623 hearing because she believes communities like Alpaugh would benefit if the legislation is passed.

The state has estimated there are about 300 communities with persistent water contamination.

The Fresno County town of Lanare’s experience is often spoken of as a cautionary tale. A disadvantaged community of less than 600 people an hour north of Alpaugh, Lanare received a federal grant of $1.3 million to build an arsenic treatment plant that went online in 2007. But Lanare’s Community Services District, which was responsible for the water system, could only bear the expense of it running for less than six months.

“The community can’t afford to clean the water,” says Isabel Solorio, a resident of Lanare who also made the trek to Sacramento for the SB 623 hearing. “And rates have gone up.”

Not enough work had been done to analyze the community’s water use and ability to pay to keep the plant operating, explained Amanda Monaco, a policy advocate with the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability.

The community still has arsenic-contaminated water and now also a shuttered plant and higher water rates due to debt incurred to pay for the ill-conceived project, despite grant funding.

SB 623 is an attempt to try and fill these gaps in funding so we are making sure all communities in California can afford safe drinking water and that we are not having anyone fall through the cracks,” says Nelson. “So when we are talking about trying to achieve the human right to water here in California, we are doing it at the macro or community scale, but also at the individual level, even down to the most remote domestic well in the farthest corner of our state.”

The bill would create a fund managed through the State Water Resource Control Board’s Office of Sustainable Water Solutions. Currently, there is no dollar amount attached to the bill, but Nelson says clean water advocates have estimated the need is around $140 million to $150 million annually.

The money could be used for a variety of purposes, such as for operation and maintenance costs, for short-term fixes like bottled water, or long-term solutions to plan and construct systems to treat or blend contaminated water, or to consolidate water systems.

Devil Is in the Details

Supporters of Senate Bill 623 wait to speak before the California Assembly’s Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee in July. (Tara Lohan)

On the fourth floor of the Capitol building, dozens of SB 623 supporters who had previously gathered on the steps outside for a brief rally took turns filing into the packed hearing room to officially voice their support for SB 623 in front of the Assembly’s Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee.

But as Monning, the bill’s author, told the committee when it was time for its members to ask questions about the legislation, “The devil is in the details.”

While the vision of the bill – to provide a fund for safe drinking water – is broadly supported, some key details of how that happens are not.

“We agree with the intent of the bill,” said Cindy Tuck, deputy executive director for government relations at the Association of California Water Agencies. But the organization opposes the inclusion of language that would require testing of private wells and small water systems (which have less than 15 connections) for water contamination.

Private wells currently are not required to be tested for water contaminants and county-regulated small systems have less stringent water quality requirements, so “data is lacking to support a credible needs assessment,” according to the association. “We think this is an important area to be looked at but there are some big questions that should be looked at before they jump right in with the testing,” says Tuck.

The group and its allies also contend that the fund should not be used for capital improvements like constructing treatment plants, which already have existing funding sources. Instead, they say, it should focus on operations and maintenance costs which are hard to fund through bonds.

But Monning countered in the hearing that supporters believe the fund should be as flexible as possible to invest the money in ways that will result in the most impact. “We are not prepared to remove capital improvements,” he says. “There is not enough [existing] grant money to serve all communities.”

The biggest stumbling block comes from the way in which money will be raised for the fund.

The bill does not yet contain specific language, but part of the money is expected to come from contributions from water ratepayers.

“In California and many states, we pay a very small surcharge on our monthly bill for things like energy to guarantee universal access to that utility,” says Nelson. “But for this most basic and fundamental of utilities, drinking water, we don’t do that. This is a pathway we are seriously considering.”

Fees on water bills, he says, would be extremely modest, “in the cents every month,” and there would be a low-income exemption.

ACWA opposes that potential funding mechanism as “highly problematic and not the appropriate response to the problem.”

“This is a social issue for the state of California, and the General Fund is the right funding mechanism,” says Tuck.

Part of the money for the fund would also come from a fee levied on agricultural producers, and stakeholders from the agriculture industry are determining the best method for raising those fees, says Johnson of the California Rice Commission.

That is meant to address groundwater contamination in some parts of the state, particularly the Salinas Valley and the San Joaquin Valley, where nitrogen-based fertilizers and animals waste spread on farm fields have leached unsafe levels of nitrate into groundwater. A report from the University of California, Davis, found that 254,000 people in those regions are at risk from having nitrate-contaminated water.

“It’s important that dischargers who have been contaminating our groundwater are paying into a fund that would help clean up the groundwater,” says Garibay of the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability.

But the legislation would also limit enforcement for the next 15 years by the state or regional water boards against farms for contributing to excessive nitrate in groundwater if agricultural operations meet mitigation requirements, including paying into the SB 623 fund. After 15 years the amount of money agriculture would contribute to the fund would be reduced.

Steve Shimek, who heads Monterey Coastkeeper and also serves as chief executive of the Otter Project, two groups focused on protecting watersheds and coastal ocean areas, says that their lawyers read this and other language in the bill as a “pay to pollute” scheme.

“For the first time a single industry is given immunity for ongoing pollution,” said Shimek at the hearing. “We support the intent, we support the human right to water and we support a general obligation to pay for this. We cannot support blowing a giant hole in California’s water code and condemning a future generation while you provide water for people today.”

Monning refutes this interpretation, saying that the bill provides “no protection from people discharging above the limit and it does nothing to restrict the enforcement powers of the regional water board.”

Regional water boards in the Central Valley and Salinas Valley have established programs, known as “ag orders” to limit nitrate in groundwater by requiring operations to use best practices to limit the application of nitrogen to what is needed for plant uptake to reduce excess nitrate infiltrating into groundwater.

But Shimek believes those existing orders are too weak. “I think many of the proponents think they are solving the problem, I do not agree at all,” he says.

On July 11, the Assembly’s Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee voted 5 to 1 to pass the bill to the Assembly’s Appropriations Committee, which will likely hear it near the end of August. If it passes there, the bill will go to the full Assembly floor for a vote, and possibly back to the Senate. It would need to clear any remaining legislative hurdles by Sept. 15 to reach the governor’s desk. Nelson says clean water advocates feel good about the bill’s prospects with Gov. Brown and that his office understands “the gravity of crisis” and wants to find solutions.

SB 623 won’t solve all the issues, but it moves us one step closer to making sure that all Californians have safe and affordable water,” says Garibay.

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