Beginning in January, all schools in California must provide free, fresh water where students eat lunch.

What, you mean they don't already? No, says Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, who sponsored the bill that will go into law Jan. 1.

"People are just stunned to realize that kids can't drink free, fresh water when they are eating their meals," Leno said.

Compliance requires "minimal additional expense," he said. "What we are really talking about is putting some pitchers of water on their tables with cups."

The bill, SB 1413, imposes no penalty for noncompliance by the July 2011 deadline and offers no state funding for schools to install modern "hydration stations." Districts can opt out of the new regulations if they can prove it's a financial hardship.

Hydration stations can range from $2,500 dispensers with internal coolers akin to what is found in fast food restaurants, to plastic pitchers and paper cups.

Backers say promoting water as a healthy alternative to sodas and sugar-laden energy drinks will help combat obesity and help students maintain focus in class.

"It definitely hydrates the brain so their brain can work," said Terry Nieves, program director for nutrition education and gardens for the Mendocino County Office of Education. "It works all the nutrients around that need to be processed."

Others see the new law as evidence of a nanny state, yet another requirement of schools when money is tight and resources dwindling.

"It could potentially be another unanticipated cost that could affect our district," said Sandra Harrington, chief business officer for Ukiah Unified School District.

The district of 5,300 students faces a deficit of $1.9 million in its $50 million budget. That shortfall is expected to grow to $4.4 million by 2012-13, Harrington said.

Officials are awaiting word about the kinds of existing water dispensers that do or don't comply with the regulation. It is unclear whether a standard drinking fountain within a cafeteria meets the letter of the law.

The new law marks the second time Leno has pushed for more access to water during lunch for the state's schoolchildren.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger rejected a similar bill in 2008, arguing that it attempted to legislate "common sense." In his veto message, he said it "essentially seeks to regulate a perceived lack of common sense amongst California's school administrators, implying that they are not acting in the best interest of our students, by denying kids access to free tap water."

This time around, Schwarzenegger endorsed Leno's bill.

"Adequate hydration is necessary for the academic achievement and health of students, so it's important that all schools provide fresh, free water to their students throughout the day, including during mealtimes," he said in a statement.

In west Santa Rosa, Bellevue Superintendent Tony Roehrick said he sympathizes with those who feel overburdened by state mandates, but said encouraging water consumption by students makes sense.

"Some people may chafe at it, but I think it's a good idea," he said. "To give kids an opportunity to sit down with a glass of water at lunchtime is a good thing."

Jennifer McClendon, project director for Network for a Healthy California, said Leno's bill is part of an ongoing push to get students to abandon soda and junk food for healthier choices.

The network is behind "ReThink Your Drink," a promotional campaign to inspire students to give up sodas and other beverages that can be unhealthy because of high sugar content.

"Our message is to promote water alongside milk as an anti-obesity tactic," she said. "The first step is to put the water hydration station in schools and second is to really promote it."

The new law is a start in a larger push to combat obesity, said Pilar Gray, director of student nutrition services at Fort Bragg Unified School District, where fundraising efforts are under way to install high-end hydration systems.

"Our concern is lack of funding because they are quite costly," she said. "There is no budget in the schools for this, and we are looking at more budget cuts coming up. We have this big black cloud overhead about money."

Schools aren't the only players in teaching students about healthier choices, but their role is pivotal, Gray said.

"I don't think this alone is going to do it. I think it's part of it," she said. "The schools have only so much control of what kids consume. We have a very proactive wellness policy, but that doesn't stop them from popping into a convenience store and chowing down on the way home."

Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. She can be reached at 526-8671 or kerry.benefield@ pressdemocrat.com.