San Francisco Chronicle
Safe drinking water can come at a price
Lawmakers consider taxation to solve toxic problem
“If this was a problem in Beverly Hills, people would be outraged. It’s not that solutions to this problem don’t exist. It’s about historically where the resources and attention in our state have gone for these issues.” Kelsey Hinton, communications manager, Community Water Center
SAN JERARDO, Monterey County — José Hernández has two plastic barrels in his front yard, filled to the brim with water collected during the recent rains. Half a dozen buckets, a trash can and a cooking pot sit close by, nearly overflowing.
It should be enough for Hernández to tend to his garden for the next few weeks — and slight relief for a water bill that sets him back $130 to $170 each month. A retired farmworker, Hernández, 64, supports his wife and two daughters primarily on a $950 monthly Social Security check.
In San Jerardo, a farmworker cooperative in Salinas, water is a precious — and expensive — commodity. The 250 or so residents have long been plagued by water contaminated by agricultural runoff from the surrounding cauliflower, broccoli and strawberry fields. Their bills more than quadrupled nine years ago when the county dug a new well for San Jerardo, pumping clean water from two miles away.
Hundreds of communities, and more than 1 million Californians, facing a similar struggle for safe and affordable water are now at the center of a budget fight at the state Capitol
over how to fix the problem. After several failed attempts, there is momentum this legislative session to establish a fund for small water agencies unable to provide customers with clean drinking water because of the high treatment costs.
But several hurdles remain before the June 15 deadline for the Legislature to pass a budget — most precariously, a resistance among lawmakers to tax millions of residential water users and others while California enjoys a surplus of more than $21 billion.
Activists and Gov. Gavin Newsom have pushed to establish a dedicated clean-water fee on customers and agribusiness that would not be at risk of cuts if the economy sours. Many lawmakers, however, prefer that the money come from the state’s general fund, not another tax.
“If this was a problem in Beverly Hills, people would be outraged,” said Kelsey Hinton, communications manager for the Community Water Center, which works on drinking water access in California and has been sponsoring legislation to establish a clean water fund since 2016.
“It’s not that solutions to this problem don’t exist. It’s about historically where the resources and attention in our state have gone for these issues.”
Statewide, 372 water agencies serving nearly 1 million of California’s almost 40 million residents are out of compliance with state standards on contamination levels or treatment techniques. Advocates say the number is even higher when including people in those areas who rely on private wells.
The pollution is largely concentrated in agricultural communities in the Central Valley and Salinas Valley. Water systems there are often contaminated by nitrates from pesticides, fertilizer runoff and dairy waste, and arsenic, which scientists believe is released into aquifers by overpumping. Cancer-causing chemicals have been found in the groundwater in some places.
State-mandated testing has also identified hundreds of schools, many of them in urban areas, with elevated lead levels from corroding pipes and taps.
Federal drinking water grants are available, and California has provided some assistance in the past. Proposition 1, a bond measure that voters approved in 2014, set aside $260 million to help small, poor communities pay for water treatment projects.
But operating and maintaining those systems after they are built is another challenge. The clean-water fund that Newsom proposed in his budget plan would be the first source dedicated to that purpose.
Lanare, an unincorporated town of about 600 in Fresno County, opened a $1.3 million facility in 2007 to treat its arsenic-tainted drinking water. Six months later, the local water district shut down the plant because it was too expensive to operate. It has remained idle since .
“Great, you have a water treatment plant. How are you going to pay for that without doubling, tripling water costs?” said Hinton of the Community Water Center.
San Jerardo first found out that its water was not safe to drink in 1990. Residents shut down the well and dug another, but that well also became contaminated within three years. A third well became too polluted to use by 2001.
For years, Monterey County provided San Jerardo with bottled water. Then residents began complaining about rashes and ill health that they believed was caused by their use of the toxic water to bathe and wash clothes. The county installed a filtration system, and in 2010 dug the well that San Jerardo now relies on.
It’s expensive to operate, so the county is looking to sell the system to a private company, which residents fear would raise their rates even higher. They already pay a $72 connection fee on their monthly bills.
Twenty miles away, at a farmworkers camp near Soledad, Maria Ramirez and her family spend about $9 to fill up three five-gallon water bottles twice a week.
Three years ago, camp residents were told their water was contaminated with coliform bacteria and should be boiled. Since then, the owner has provided each household with an extra five-gallon bottle weekly.
Ramirez, 29, carefully plans the meals she makes for her husband and two young daughters to avoid using too much drinking water on beans, soup or rice. But she still cleans and washes with the camp water, even though it makes her itch when she showers.
Ramirez said her family is willing to make the sacrifice because their rent would be several hundred dollars more in town: “That’s how us Mexicans take it,” she said.
Newsom signaled his commitment to the clean water fund in the first week of his governorship, when he visited a community in Stanislaus County that had been forced to rely on bottled water after its wells were polluted with nitrates and arsenic.
His plan would raise about $140 million a year by taxing fertilizer sales and milk production, charging dairies a fee and adding a monthly surcharge to Californians’ water bills. Most customers would pay an extra 95 cents a month, though the surcharge would be as high as $10 for the largest users.
Agricultural interests, which say they need to help solve a problem they created, generally support the idea. But water agencies object that it would raise costs for consumers and complicate their business by turning them into tax collectors.
“We think it’s not good policy to tax a resource that is essential to life,” said Cindy Tuck, deputy executive director for government relations for the Association of California Water Agencies. “It would work against water affordability.”
There appears to be support for the governor’s approach in the Assembly, which has steadily advanced a bill by Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, D-Coachella (Riverside County), that proposes a similar mix of fertilizer and dairy taxes and a monthly surcharge of 50 cents for water users. Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, a Paramount (Los Angeles County) Democrat who rarely carries his own legislation, recently signed on as a co-author.
But in the Senate, Democrats have resisted fee plans. Earlier this month, several lawmakers settled on a proposal, backed by Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, to set aside $150 million in the budget each year. Senate Democrats said their plan “strengthens the middle class with no new taxes on middleand lower-income Californians.”
Advocates of a dedicated fund worry that the money would be on the chopping block the next time the state has budget problems. Newsom and legislative leaders will work through their different approaches during budget negotiations over the next two weeks.
Residents in San Jerardo, meanwhile, wonder how much longer their fourth well will last.
Horacio Amezquita, the cooperative’s general manager, said the arsenic level in their water has doubled over the past decade, as farmers pumped more groundwater during the drought. Tests last year found as much as 8 micrograms per liter of arsenic in the water — anything above 10 is considered unsafe.
“Your land is worthless,” Amezquita said, “if you don’t have clean water.”