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Bill Before California Legislature Could Help Supply Clean Water to All

A coalition of diverse interests is backing Senate Bill 623, which would create a fund to help pay for clean drinking water projects needed by the state’s rural communities, writes Ceres’ Kirsten James.

Written by Kirsten James Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
Rally
San Joaquin Valley residents traveled to Sacramento in July to rally in support of Senate Bill 623, which would provide a fund for clean drinking water projects.Tara Lohan

California is home to some of the most agriculturally productive regions in the nation. Yet in many small communities scattered throughout those regions, residents lack the most basic commodity of all: clean, safe drinking water.

Instead, what comes out of the taps in upward of 300 rural public water systems is water contaminated with arsenic, nitrates and other toxins, according to the State Water Resources Control Board. Each year, around 1 million Californians are exposed to unsafe water to meet their basic human needs.

These small water systems are out of compliance with federal drinking water standards, largely because they haven’t the funds to cover ongoing costs of water treatment. Located mostly in disadvantaged farmworker communities, the residents can’t afford higher water rates; yet without more revenue, the water systems can’t pay for water-treatment operations.

It seems contradictory that the families who help grow and produce the food that nourishes others are without safe drinking water to meet their needs. That is why we at Ceres and many of our business partners support the legislation now before the state’s Assembly, Senate Bill 623, the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund, which would help small, rural water systems fund water treatment.

Our company partners have employees and customers in these rural outposts without clean water and thus have engaged in being proactive to find a solution through SB-623. Among those relying on contaminated water from taps are 12,000 schoolchildren attending 30 rural schools supplied by stand-alone wells.

Agricultural entities recognize that some of the contaminants in well water are nitrates, which seep into groundwater when too much fertilizer is applied to fields. Accordingly, agricultural organizations joined with environmental justice groups in forging this legislative answer to the safe drinking water problem – a historic collaboration that should be recognized.

This week, major companies and investors will converge in Sacramento to urge the swift passage of SB-623, which would create a fund to pay for operating treatment facilities at small water systems in rural, disadvantaged communities. The fund would come from a fertilizer fee and small water user fees – ranging from less than $1 a month on households to $10 a month at most on large industrial customers. That would add up to $140 million annually, the amount that a formal needs assessment determined was required to help small, rural water systems afford the costs of filtering for nitrates, arsenic and other contaminants.

In the era of implementation of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, many companies feel compelled to help assure safe drinking water is accessible to all, one of the goals to which companies and nations are committed.

California is blessed with a healthy economy and some of the most productive farmland in the nation. But it’s untenable that so many people don’t have safe drinking water – a seemingly ‘Third World’ problem right here in a state with the sixth-largest economy in the world. And the problem has only gotten worse since the drought; the depletion of groundwater during the drought concentrated the toxins in well water.

portal developed by the State Water Resources Control Board shows where these communities are. The majority of them are in Kern, Tulare and Stanislaus counties – the counties most reliant on well water for public drinking water. These counties are also among the most agriculturally bountiful in the nation, producing lettuces, broccoli, carrots, almonds, rice, cotton and grapes as well as alfalfa for cattle.

Tulare County’s agricultural sector “routinely ranks as the second-highest growing crop value in the nation,” states a California economic summary from its Department of Transportation. Yet 19 percent of Tulare’s households live in poverty and the median household income is $41,000 a year. Kern County is similar.

In addition to these communities, the state estimates that as many as 2 million Californians rely on private wells or wells with fewer than 15 connections and might also be exposed to contamination. Some of these users, such as schools connected to stand-alone wells, would also be eligible for the water-treatment operating funds.

SB-623 provides a good solution to the unsafe drinking water problem. At relatively little cost, it offers a way to prevent dire health problems such as birth defects and susceptibility to cancer that drinking contaminated water can cause.

Five years ago, the state passed a law declaring that access to safe, clean drinking water is a human right. Now the state legislature should take steps to guarantee that right through the passage of SB-623.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.

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