New bill proposes to fix water quality for less than pennies on the dollar


Sen. Vidak co-authors bill creating a voluntary tax on consumer water bills, mandatory taxes on agriculture to fund upgrades to contaminated water systems

By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN

SACRAMENTO – A new piece of bipartisan legislation was introduced last week in another attempt to solve water quality issues for California’s poorest communities.

Sen. Andy Vidak (R-Hanford), who represents most of Tulare County in the state legislature, co-authored Senate Bills 844 and 845 in the latest attempt to create a new tax that would fund projects to treat water in rural areas where water is contaminated with arsenic, nitrates, lead and other contaminants.

Introduced by co-author Senate Majority Leader Bill Monning (R-Santa Cruz), SB 844 proposes mandatory fees on dairy producers and fertilizer manufacturers. Fertilizer is the primary source of nitrates in groundwater in rural areas and dairy waste is also associated with nitrates, according to studies conducted by the University of California, Riverside. Arsenic is often a naturally occurring contaminate create as certain types of rock formations dissolve but has also been linked to over use of fertilizers and herbicides, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The bill would assess $0.002 per dollar on all sales of fertilizing materials beginning in 2019 and $0.01355 per hundredweight of milk produced beginning in 2021.

Maria Jassi has advocated for safe water at her daughter Yalitza’s elementary school in Lindsay. Photo courtesy of the Community Water Center.

Maria Jassi has advocated for safe water at her daughter Yalitza’s elementary school in Lindsay. Photo courtesy of the Community Water Center.

SB 845 would create a voluntary drinking water tax of 95 cents per month that would automatically be added onto consumer water bills beginning July 1, 2019. Water users would have to opt out of the tax by contacting their community water system. The revenue from the new taxes would be used to fund the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund used to cover the cost of upgrades in areas affected by groundwater contamination.

The bills are nearly identical to SB 623, which Sen. Monning introduced last year, with the main difference being that the consumer tax is voluntary. SB 623 never made it out of the legislature but Gov. Jerry Brown did include the text as a trailor bill to the state budget by kickstarting the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund with $4.7 million. When the Governor announced a budget deal on June 8, the bill was cut from the budget. 

SB 623 received a broad base of support in a rare alliance between agriculture and environmental justice advocacy groups, as well as local officials representing disadvantaged communities and residents living in communities without access to clean water. Those groups gathered in front of the Tulare County Board of Supervisors Chambers on Sept. 6, 2017 to announce their support for SB623. One of the group’s supporting the bill was Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual (CCM).

Portions of California’s immense Central Valley have salt or nitrate accumulations in the groundwater and soil from both historic and ongoing discharges from legal and accepted agriculture, municipal, and industrial activities. The high nitrate concentrations impact drinking water quality and, in some communities, water supply systems and domestic wells do not meet safe drinking water standards. Salt accumulations have fallowed 250,000 acres and impaired over 1.5 million acres, according to a 123-page draft Central Valley Salt and Nitrate Control Program (CV-SALTS) released by the State Water Board earlier this year.

CCM said nitrates are a “legacy issue” meaning that in some cases it is the result of farming practices and in other cases it is naturally occurring. Either way, the burden and cost falls on landowners to prove that he/she was not the cause of contamination. CCM argues that landowners who receive letters are forced into a position of having to settle with the Water Board and provide replacement water to impacted communities. Growers in Tulare County, as well as Monterey and San Luis Obispo Counties have already received these letters. The Office of Enforcement has made it clear additional letters are forthcoming unless a statewide solution, such SB 623, is achieved. Without that funding there is little rural communities can do to treat harmful chemicals out of their drinking water.

The two most prevalent contaminants found in California drinking water are nitrates and arsenic. Nitrite changes the normal form of hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in the blood to the rest of the body, into a form called methemoglobin that cannot carry oxygen. At high enough concentrations nitrate can result in a temporary blood disorder in infants called “blue baby syndrome.” In severe, untreated cases, brain damage and eventually death can result from suffocation due to lack of oxygen, according to the National Institute for Health. Drinking water with high levels of arsenic can cause diabetes, cancer, as well as heart, lung, liver, immune, nervous or reproductive system disorders.

About 2800 violations of drinking water standards across the state were reported in 2017, according to the Annual Compliance Report issued by the California State Water Resources Control Board. About half were violations for exceeding maximum contaminant levels (MCL) or for failing to implement treatment techniques and the other half were for monitoring and reporting (M/R) violations.

The majority (more than 50%) of the MCL or TT violations occur in public water systems serving communities with less than 500 service connections, with another 40% occurring in non-transient non-community (NTNC) water systems, such as schools, and transient non-community (TNC) water systems, such as campgrounds.

Most of these types of water systems are located in the Central Valley and the Central Coast. There were more than 815 violations in Kern County, 413 in Tulare, 328 in Fresno and 282 in Monterey. Tulare County had 124 violations for nitrates alone, more than double the nearest county, Kern County, with 59 violations. These included small water companies in every corner of the county including the Soutls Mutual Water Company outside of Tulare, Lemon Cove Water Company, East Orosi Community Service District, and Teapot Dome Water Company near Porterville. 

The most vocal opponent of the taxes remains the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA), which represents more than 430 public water agencies members responsible for providing 90% of drinking water in California. ACWA issued an Outreach Alert on Aug. 21 urging its members to oppose SB 845 arguing it would make water less affordable. 

“ACWA strongly agrees that all Californians should have safe drinking water but opposes this proposed mandate because it would be a logistical nightmare for member agencies,” the press release stated. “It would impose a costly and complicated structure by requiring community water systems to change their billing systems and hire new employees to bill and collect the remittances.”

ACWA argues the Legislature could instead add a check-off box for voluntary contributions to the California Form 540 and have it efficiently collected at a much lower cost by a single state agency –the Franchise Tax Board. ACWA also noted there are several other legislative actions already in motion to solve the problems. In June, California voters approved Proposition 68 with $250 million for safe drinking water that is prioritized for disadvantaged communities. In November, California voters will consider Proposition 3 which would allocate another $500 million for safe drinking water for disadvantaged communities. 

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