State water regulators are endorsing new taxes to ensure access to safe drinking water for Californians, including possibly on the fertilizer that feeds the state's $34 billion agricultural industry.
Portraying a grim picture of the Golden State's groundwater problems, a long-awaited report by the State Water Board says it is "critical" that new funds be found to help poor and disadvantaged communities. This week's report followed an earlier one naming 680 community water systems that rely on contaminated wells for water, including seven in Santa Cruz County.
"These two reports reflect the broad challenges we face and offer the same stark conclusion about the need to address statewide groundwater contamination," said Charles Hoppin, chair of the State Water Board. "Gov. [Jerry] Brown has stated that safe drinking water is a human right and it is our job to work with all parties to identify and implement viable solutions."
It appears to be the first time state water officials have called on the Legislature to pass new taxes to address groundwater problems, which afflict both the Pajaro and Salinas valleys. The Central Valley also is severely impacted, and nitrate runoff from farming is blamed as a leading factor.
Nitrates occur naturally, but they are found in high levels in fertilizer. Long-term exposure contributes to a number of health problems including cancer, but they also can cause more acute illnesses such as blue baby syndrome, a potentially fatal lowering of oxygen levels in the blood.
Rural farmworker communities seem especially impacted, including several in the Salinas Valley. And the cost to residents can be severe: after being forced to relocate a well two miles out of town, customers in the San Jerardo labor cooperative now pay $125 per month to pump, filter and deliver clean water.
The State Water Board offered several recommendations, with environmental groups seizing upon a potential fertilizer fee to subsidize small water systems, where the cost of pricey filtering equipment cannot be spread across a broad customer base. Other suggestions include new water use fees or even a tax on produce and other agricultural commodities.
"We're very concerned about just going to another tax or fee," said Danny Merkley, a lobbyist with the California Farm Bureau who said the industry takes the issue seriously, but that farms have seen water-related fees shoot up over the past 18 months.
"Every time we turn around we see another fee," Merkley said, concerned about the impact on small farmers.
But environmentalists are lining up behind the idea as a way to offset the high cost of clean water.
"By creating a fee "... we could generate a vital source of revenue for communities to ensure access to safe and affordable drinking water," said Jennifer Clary of San Francisco-based Clean Water Action.
Wednesday -- the same day the State Water Board made its recommendations -- Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, several other Sacramento lawmakers and selected nonprofits held a Sacramento press conference to highlight a package of drinking water bills.
One of Alejo's bills would authorize $2 million to come up with a drinking water cleanup plan specific to the Salinas Valley, and Alejo also has freed up money to help farmers learn how to reduce the amount of fertilizer they use. Another Alejo bill would fulfill a State Water Board recommendation to help taxed water systems.
But Alejo, who heads the Assembly's Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee, stopped short of endorsing a new revenue source, seemingly wanting to avoid a divisive issue.
"I'm focusing on finding consensus and where we can reach agreement," Alejo said, adding that he considers the situation a "crisis" and saying the issue could be the subject of future legislative hearings.
"I don't think there's any excuse why we can't do a better job," Alejo said.
Farmworker advocates said a fertilizer tax has the advantage of both raising money and discouraging fertilizer use. Asked whether she thought it represented a solution to a decades-long problem, Jeanette Pantoja, a Monterey County-based community worker for California Rural Legal Assistance, said it was a start.
"I would say the light at the end of the tunnel is that more of these communities get more clean water. But do I consider it necessary or an important piece of the solution?" Pantoja said. "I think it is an important piece of the solution."
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