By Alexei Koseff
California will dedicate more than a billion dollars over the next decade to help the estimated 1 million residents who do not have reliable access to clean drinking water.
Gov. Gavin Newsom traveled to Sanger, near Fresno, on Wednesday to sign SB200, which establishes a fund for communities that are struggling to maintain their water systems.
Activists have lobbied for more than a decade to create a program that could supplement federal and state grants that provide assistance to small, poor communities to build water treatment projects. Those systems are expensive to maintain, leaving residents with eye-popping water bills they can scarcely afford and sometimes forcing local water agencies to shutter the treatment projects.
"The fact that more than a million Californians can't rely on clean water to drink or bathe in is a moral disgrace," Newsom said in a statement. "Parents shouldn't have to worry about their kids drinking from the water fountain at school, and families shouldn't have to dump water over their heads to shower every day."
Statewide, 326 water agencies serving nearly 1 million of California's almost 40 million residents are out of compliance with state standards on contamination levels or treatment techniques. Advocates say the number of people without clean water is even higher when counting those who rely on private wells in the same areas.
The pollution is largely concentrated in agricultural communities in the Central Valley and Salinas Valley. Water systems there are often contaminated by nitrates from pesticides, fertilizer runoff and dairy waste, as well as arsenic, which scientists believe is released into aquifers by overpumping. Cancer-causing chemicals have been found in the groundwater in some places.
State-mandated testing has also identified hundreds of schools, many of them in urban areas, with elevated lead levels from corroding pipes and taps.
Ellen Hanak, director of the PPIC Water Policy Center at the Public Policy Institute of California, said the lack of money for operations and maintenance has been a hurdle to sustaining people's access to clean water. The new fund substantially addresses that problem, she said, but experts will need to figure out solutions for unique problems in different communities so they don't require financial support indefinitely.
"There's a lot we can learn in the next few years," Hanak said. "This gives us a very long runway."
Newsom originally hoped to set a clean-water fee for customers and agribusiness that would not be at risk of cuts if the economy sours, but he ran into resistance among lawmakers hesitant to pass another tax on millions of residential water users while California enjoys a large budget surplus.
The state will instead divert up to $130 million each year for the next decade from revenue raised by cap-and-trade auctions for greenhouse gas polluters. The money could be used for repairs and other operating expenses, as well as to consolidate small water systems that are at risk of failing because of financial problems.
The arrangement raised eyebrows and drew accusations from some environmentalists that Newsom was raiding a source of money meant to support programs that combat climate change. His administration argued that residents with reliable access to clean drinking water will no longer have to rely on bottled water, thereby eliminating greenhouse-gas emissions from trucks that bring water into those communities.
Horacio Amezquita, general manager of the San Jerardo farmworker cooperative in Monterey County, said he was happy Newsom signed the bill.
His community of about 250 residents, surrounded by cauliflower, broccoli and strawberry fields, had three wells contaminated by agricultural runoff in 11 years. After the county dug a new well for San Jerardo nine years ago, pumping clean water from 2 miles away, customers' bills quadrupled.
Amezquita said the cooperative is trying to take over management of the water system in hopes of running it more efficiently, and that a grant from the new fund could help make that happen.
"It's a good amount of money to do good things for the people of California," Amezquita said.
(c)2019 the San Francisco Chronicle