Californians must pitch in to make drinking water safe for everyone

By Emily Rooney and Jennifer Clary, Special to CALmatters

It’s a mistake nearly every farmer has made when something breaks down on the farm.  

You try to patch it up as best you can.  And then you do it again. And then maybe again – before you finally decide to stop throwing good money after bad and actually fix what’s wrong.

It’s the same situation the Legislature is faced with as it confronts a crisis that has left 1 million Californians without access to safe drinking water. The situation is intolerable, and everybody knows it.  No family should have to live in a community in which the water that comes from their taps puts their children’s health at risk.

Over the last several years, the state has authorized millions of dollars for emergency actions and one-time patches, but has shied from doing what’s necessary to sustainably solve this problem.

There is talk of doing this again by taking money from the state’s savings account. But the fact is, lawmakers must fix this shameful situation and heed the advice of Gov. Gavin Newsom when he said:

“The fact that more than a million Californians can’t rely on clean water to drink or bathe in is a moral disgrace. Our state must forge a long-term solution to fix this problem.”

The problem is that 330 water systems in rural communities from the Inland Empire to the San Joaquin, Salinas and Santa Maria valleys pump from contaminated aquifers.

Groundwater basins drawn down by years of drought contain dangerously high levels of nitrates, arsenic and other contaminants. Nearly 2 million more Californians are not served by a regulated public water system and may not know if their water is contaminated.

The consequences for human health are severe. Nitrates, converted to nitrites in the body, limit the body’s ability to distribute oxygen through the bloodstream, particularly in children and pregnant women. Arsenic can cause cancer and skin damage, and has been linked to increased occurrences of heart disease and diabetes.

What these contaminated water systems require is a higher level of treatment, but simply providing one-time money for construction of such plants is not a sustainable solution.

Without an ongoing source of funding for operations and maintenance, these communities, found mostly in economically disadvantaged areas, cannot afford to build treatment plants and then have funding disappear.

The long-term solution that Gov. Newsom proposes is to extend to water the same sort of public benefit charges that have long been applied to other utilities, such as electricity and natural gas.

All users would pay a very small fee each month–in this case, it amounts to 95 cents a month for most households–to ensure that all Californians have access to life’s necessities.

The state’s leading agricultural organizations recognize that their industry has a special responsibility to contribute to this solution.

Nitrates are an unavoidable byproduct of agricultural operations, as they are generated from livestock manure and from both synthetic and organic fertilizers. Plants need nitrates to live and grow.

These industry leaders are supporting a provision that would require farmers, through a surcharge on fertilizer sales and on milk production, to contribute toward the long-term solution that Gov. Newsom seeks.

In addition, there would be an industry-supported fee on commercial fertilizer. This proposal has received bipartisan support in the Legislature and from environmental justice advocates.

But there are other sources of contaminants as well. Nitrates seep from septic systems. Arsenic occurs naturally in the soil. Perchlorate is a toxin that typically comes from military and industrial wastes.  

Groundwater issues extend far beyond nitrates, which is why a statewide solution is required. A lasting solution requires a comprehensive response to make certain that California can provide to all its residents a fundamental right embedded in state law: the right to safe, clean, affordable and accessible water.

The fact that 1 million of our neighbors are being denied that right is a situation that, as Gov. Newsom has said, “is unbecoming of who we are and what we stand for.”

It’s an intolerable problem and it must be fixed permanently.


Emily Rooney is president of the Agricultural Council of California, [email protected].  Jennifer Clary is water policy and legislative analyst for Clean Water Action, [email protected]. They wrote this commentary for CALmatters.

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