Safe drink­ing wa­ter can come at a price

Law­mak­ers con­sider tax­a­tion to solve toxic prob­lem

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By Alexei Kos­eff

“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.”

Pho­tos by Santiago Me­jia / The Chron­i­cle

With lo­cal wa­ter un­drink­able, Jimenez Camp res­i­dents (Mon­terey County) use bot­tled wa­ter and fil­ters.

Res­i­dents in San Jerardo Co­op­er­a­tive have to pay a $72 per month fee on their wa­ter bills. They worry it may go higher.

Pho­tos by Santiago Me­jia / The Chron­i­cle

Ho­ra­cio Amezquita, gen­eral man­ager of San Jerardo Co­op­er­a­tive, walks by an out­dated wa­ter sys­tem. The com­mu­nity is on its fourth well since 1990, due to pol­lu­tants in the first three.

Maria Jimenez’s fam­ily fil­ters their house­hold wa­ter for drink­ing in Jimezez farm­worker camp near Soledad.

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