Yes, we need clean water. But it must remain tax-free

By Sharon Quirk-Silva, Special to CALmatters

Most states don’t tax milk, bread, fruit or vegetables because they are essential to human life. Food tax exemptions have been in place since the Great Depression, part of a social covenant formed to help the neediest afford life’s essentials.  

But Democratic Sen. William Monning of Carmel is leading an effort to tax something even more essential than groceries. Tax bills now under consideration seek to tax the water we use in our homes.  

Five years ago, the California Legislature passed a law declaring that water is a basic human right. But the truth is that not everyone in California can count on the safety or reliability of water coming out of their taps or wells.

This proposed water tax seeks to levy taxes on all water users as a way to fund improvements for failing water systems. Proponents argue that water ought to be taxed as a “public good” such as electricity and natural gas.  

I applaud the ultimate goal of the water tax to help these inadequate and neglected water systems, but there are better approaches to fix this difficult problem.

Much is at stake. Depending on whom you ask, between 200,000 to 1 million Californians do not have regular access to safe drinking water.

Many of these deficient systems are in the Central Valley. According to the State Water Resources Control Board’s database of chronically failing water systems, nearly half of the suppliers who cannot meet basic drinking water safety standards are single well owners.

Local water districts and very small mutual water companies comprise the remainder. There is no doubt we must address this. But the key question is funding. How much will it cost and who will pay?

Sen. Monning’s bill, Senate Bill 200, is based on a previous bill he proposed in 2018, that would raise funds through a monthly tax ranging between $1 to $4 depending on each household and business meter size.

That proposal stands in stark contrast not just to our collective desire to keep life’s essentials free from tax, but to other bills that seek to exempt even more public goods such as diapers and women’s sanitary products from taxation.

There is different approach.

Democratic Sen. Ana Caballero of Salinas is proposing SB 669 which would create a trust fund with seed money from the state budget surplus. The Safe Drinking Water Trust fund would provide the opportunity for collective action without new taxation by using the state’s budget surplus as a source of seed funding.  

Funding could be expanded or reduced depending on the results of the State Water Resource Control Board’s needs assessment of chronically failing water systems.

Trust fund money also could be applied to help community water systems afford water treatment systems in order to meet future drinking water regulations.

The budget surplus need not be the only source of funding for the trust fund. Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon has tasked Democratic Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia from the Coachella Valley to evaluate different options for solutions to the safe drinking water funding question.

Assemblyman Garcia has been reaching far and wide to collect ideas from stakeholders throughout the state. We’ll begin to see the results of his efforts and informational hearings as his Assembly Bill 217 makes its way through the legislative process.

We share basic needs for food, water, and products that keep us healthy. Through our collective action, we must pull together to make meeting those basic needs a priority.

Taxing water, food and other essential needs would limit their affordability and betray our collective resolve that no one should be denied the essentials for health, sanitation and freedom from hunger and thirst.


Sharon Quirk-Silva is a Democrat who represents Assembly District 65 in northern Orange County, [email protected] She wrote this commentary for CALmatters.

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