Editorial: California’s contaminated drinking water is a disgrace

February 11, 2019
For years, Californians regarded access to safe drinking water as a Third World problem.
 
No more.
 
About 1 million Californians can’t safely drink their tap water. Approximately 300 water systems in California currently have contamination issues ranging from arsenic to lead to uranium at levels that create severe health issues.
 
It’s a disgrace that demands immediate state action.
 
Gov. Gavin Newsom proposes taxing water across California to create a dedicated fund to solve the problem. Imposing a new tax would require a two-thirds supermajority of the Legislature to pass.
 
It’s a proposal first suggested by state Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel. He  had proposed combining a 95-cents-a-month water tax on consumers with a fee on dairy and cattle operations, whose use of nitrogen fertilizers is a major contributor to the problem. He would create a fund managed through the State Water Resource Control Board’s Office of Sustainable Water Solutions. Water experts estimate the need to be about $150 million a year.
 
The senator proposed that approach in legislation last year but couldn’t overcome intense lobbying from the agriculture industry and water districts throughout the state. Lawmakers need to seriously consider it this year. The governor has it right when he says this is a problem California cannot continue to ignore.
 
Bay Area residents who think this isn’t their problem should think again.
 
Yes, the problem is primarily centered in the south part of the San Joaquin Valley, where nitrate contamination has reached groundwater supplies. But in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta town of Isleton, just 90 miles from San Jose and 40 miles from Walnut Creek, residents’ tap water contains enough arsenic that it is unsafe to drink. And the Modesto Bee reported last year that drinking fountains at Gregori High School in Salida, just eight miles north of Modesto, had been shut down after a test of the school’s water system turned up dangerous lead levels.
 
It’s inevitable that if the state continues draining the Delta to send water south it will eventually pose a serious, long-term threat to the quality of Bay Area residents’ drinking water.
 
This problem must be solved, but some of the proposals are poorly designed. For example, Californians last fall wisely rejected Proposition 3, which would have devoted $500 million of an $8.9 billion water bond package to cleaning up the state’s drinking water. It was a classic “pay-to-play” initiative that included too many giveaways to special interests to support.
 
On the other extreme, Jon Coupal of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association proposes dipping into the state’s $14.8 billion surplus. That isn’t the answer — not when California faces a staggering $257 billion shortfall in state and school workers’ pension and retiree health care funds.
 
Monning has yet to re-introduce his legislation this year. It should be the start of a serious discussion to ensure that all Californians have access to safe drinking water.