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First-ever water tax proposed to tackle unsafe drinking water in California

SACRAMENTO >> For the first time Californians would pay a tax on drinking water, 95 cents per month, under legislation to fix hundreds of public water systems with unsafe tap water — a problem that’s most pervasive in rural areas with agricultural runoff.

Senate Bill 623, backed by a strange-bedfellows coalition of the agricultural lobby and environmental groups but opposed by water districts, would generate $2 billion over the next 15 years to clean up contaminated groundwater and improve faulty water systems and wells.

“My message is short and direct: We are not Flint, Michigan,” co-author Sen. Robert Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, said at a Wednesday rally outside the Capitol, where demonstrators held signs reading “Clean water is not a luxury” and “Water is a human right.”

Ironically, many Californians are more aware of the crisis in Flint — where state and local officials in 2015 told residents about lead contamination in the drinking water, after claiming it was safe to drink — than about the water problems in their home state, said the measure’s main author, Sen. Bill Monning, D-Monterey. He called this “a pivotal time in our state’s history to do the right thing.”

SB 623 has been moving through the Legislature for months, but was amended Monday to include the tax on water for both homes and businesses. It also imposes taxes on farms and dairies, roughly $30 million annually, to address some of the contamination caused by fertilizers and other chemicals. Because it includes new taxes, the proposal will need a two-thirds vote in each house to pass, which supporters concede will be a battle.

Still, Monning has been able to forge the unusual alliance of farmers and environmental groups, which rarely agree on public policy. He also has the support of at least one Republican lawmaker: Sen. Andy Vidak, a cherry farmer who said his Central Valley district — which includes Hanford, Fresno and Bakersfield — is the epicenter of the drinking-water problem.

“This is very, very important to my constituents,” he said after the rally, as some of them began chanting on the Capitol steps. “This is one of the most important things in my district.”

But water agencies say taxing drinking water sets a dangerous precedent and that the bill would turn them into state tax collectors. “Water is essential to life. Should we tax drinking water? We don’t think so,” said Cindy Tuck, a spokeswoman for the Association of California Water Agencies.

Sue Stephenson, a spokeswoman for the Dublin San Ramon Services District, said she supported the intent of the proposal — potable drinking water for all — but argued that lawmakers should use the money in existing coffers.

“The whole purpose of the general fund is to help take care of disadvantaged communities,” she said. “There’s no reason that they could not also fund communities that need access to drinking water.”

Marie Barajas, of San Jose, had a similar reaction. “That’s not fair. We’re not responsible for that,” she said. “That’s why we pay taxes.”

Monning, however, argues that the general fund isn’t a reliable funding source and that the proposed tax on households, amounting to roughly $11.40 per year, is negligible. “You’re not going to notice it on your water bill,” he said.

The bill is now relegated with hundreds of others in the “suspense file” of the Assembly Appropriations Committee. The panel must decide by Sept. 1 to move it to the Assembly floor for a vote.

Selerina Chavez took a day off from work to drive from the Kern County city of Arvin for the rally. She said she hoped lawmakers would try to fix the problem posing health risks to her family and her neighbors, many of whom are farm workers or living on fixed incomes.

When she moved from Ventura County more than 20 years ago, she said, it never occurred to her that the water would be unsafe for her family to drink. They drank it for years, she said, before she learned a few years ago that it contained unsafe levels of arsenic.

“I thought about my children,” she said in Spanish. “How many years have we been drinking this water?”

In addition to her regular water bill, she spends $40 per week buying drinking water. She also buys water for cooking.

Now, she said, “I have three water bills.”

SENATE BILL 623

What is it?: SB 623, by Sen. Bill Monning, D-Monterey, would generate $2 billion over 15 years for a Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund, which would provide emergency water and longer-term system fixes for hundreds of communities whose tap water doesn’t meet safe drinking-water standards.

Where would the money come from? The proposal would generate roughly $110 million per year through a 95-cent monthly fee on home water bills as well as taxes on businesses of up to $10 per month. Another $30 million would come from higher fees on agricultural and dairy businesses, industries whose chemicals contribute to the problem of contaminated groundwater.

Who’s for it?: Who’s against it? The bill is backed by the agriculture and dairy lobbies, as well as by a long list of environmental, social justice and civic groups — an unusual combo. Water districts are against the bill, saying that taxing water users creates a bad precedent and that collecting the money would be burdensome.

Will it pass?: If the Assembly Appropriations Committee moves the bill to the floor, it needs a two-thirds vote of each house, which is always a challenge. What’s more, Assembly Republican Leader Chad Mayes has faced intense blow-back for his bipartisan collaboration to extend California’s landmark climate program, called “cap and trade.” But SB 623 does have one Republican co-author: Sen. Andy Vidak, of Hanford.

Contact Katy Murphy at 916-441-2101.

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