Pro-con: A new tax to provide clean water?

By Veronica Garibay, Special to CALmatters

Nearly one million Californians are living with toxic tap water. Families in 300 communities are risking their health every time they cook, brush their teeth, or drink a glass of water.

For the most part, this pollution problem impacts working-class communities served by small water systems that simply can’t afford to treat water to current health standards. Fortunately, lawmakers have a bipartisan solution that will address this long-standing health crisis.

California lawmakers recognized water as a human right in 2012, but have been unable to deliver on that promise for the past six years.

Now, the Legislature is on the verge of a historic step forward, championing the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund proposal put forward by Senators Bill Monning, a Carmel Democrat, and Andy Vidak, a Hanford Republican.

Senate Bill 844 would fund the cleanup of nitrate pollution with a fee on fertilizer. Senate Bill 845 would cover treatment for naturally-occurring contaminants in urban and rural areas. It would use a model that consumers are familiar with from the telecommunications and energy sector: a small—in this case voluntary—fee to ensure universal access to a basic service.

Californians would have the ability to opt out of paying the $1 per month if they choose to; polling suggests that the vast majority of voters are willing to chip in a less than a dollar to ensure every family in the state can count on clean water at their homes, schools, and workplaces. Together, these two programs would raise $120 million a year for critically-needed water testing, treatment, and infrastructure updates.

Many small utilities can’t afford to take on the projects needed to clean up arsenic, uranium, or other dangerous chemicals. Some have been serving unsafe water for over a decade.

Often, these utilities are unable to qualify for grant and loan programs until they can demonstrate long-term funding for operations and maintenance. The Legislature has a chance this month to close that gap, which has kept the state divided between clean water haves and have-nots.

The public health cost of contaminated water is considerable, and the children and elderly are at the greatest risk. Arsenic can cause cancer, cardiovascular disease, and impact pregnancy outcomes and child health.

Nitrate poisoning can make it hard for people’s blood to carry oxygen, leading in extreme cases to blue baby syndrome. Here in the wealthiest state in the nation, it is simply unacceptable that we have failed for so long to fund safe water.

The Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund is supported by 140 environmental justice, agricultural, health, labor, civil rights, anti-poverty, food security, government and water groups.

Every day we delay is another day that safe water remains a luxury determined by your zip code.

Veronica Garibay is co-founder and co-director of the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability in Fresno, [email protected]

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