In summary

Now, in the final days of the legislative session, proponents of a water tax are trying to move a different proposal – a twist on the water tax. Here’s why it’s still not a good idea.

By Veronica Garibay

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

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.By Cindy Tuck

Cindy Tuck is deputy executive director for government relations for the Association of California Water Agencies, She wrote this commentary for CALmatters.


Every Californian should have access to safe and affordable drinking water. And while most do, there are communities in California where this is not the case.

The Legislature set aside $23.5 million for this issue earlier this year. In June, voters approved Proposition 68, which includes $250 million in general obligation bond funds that must be prioritized to provide safe drinking water for disadvantaged communities. All of this is positive.

The Legislature appropriately rejected the proposed water tax and went with the general fund set aside which complements the new Proposition 68 funding.

Now, in the final days of the legislative session, proponents of the water tax are trying to move a different proposal – a twist on the water tax.

The newly amended Senate Bill 845 by Senator Bill Monning, a Carmel Democrat, would mandate that more than 3,000 local water agencies collect funding for the state by adding a voluntary remittance with an opt-out feature on the local water bills of California households and businesses. All of the funds would go to Sacramento.

Customers could pay the remittance, elect to opt out or pay a different amount. In some cases, they could obtain a refund.

On a quick glance, a voluntary remittance may sound like a reasonable idea. But when the state proposes to mandate that more than 3,000 community water systems implement this program, the combined administrative costs would multiply by 3,000 and skyrocket to levels that greatly exceed the combined collected donations.  

Each community water system would have to pay for changes to its billing system. Systems would have to hire additional staff to manage the more complicated billings. This inefficient and costly approach would make water less affordable.

There is a way to implement the voluntary contribution concept at a much lower cost:   add a new voluntary contribution fund check-off to the California personal income tax Form 540. This approach would be more efficient because one state agency would collect it instead of over 3,000 community water systems.

The Legislature should reject SB 845, a last-minute proposal that would work against water affordability.

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