California Senate approves clean drinking water fund

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SACRAMENTO — The California Senate on Monday sent legislation to Gov Gavin Newsom's desk that will spend $130 million a year over the next decade to improve drinking water for about a million people.

About one million of California's nearly 40 million residents don't have access to clean drinking water because of pollution from humans or natural causes, a fact state lawmakers have called an embarrassment for a state with the fifth-largest economy in the world. The problem is statewide, but it is concentrated in the Central Valley — the capital of the state's $20 billion agriculture industry.

Senators approved the measure 38-1.

Newsom had proposed a tax on most residential water bills to address the problem. But state lawmakers were wary of approving a new tax in a year when they had an estimated $21.5 billion surplus.

Instead, on Monday the state Senate approved a bill that would authorize spending up to $130 million each year on the state's distressed water districts, with most of it coming from a fund aimed at fighting climate change.

California voters have approved billions of dollars in infrastructure projects for water districts over the years. But the problem, advocates say, is smaller water districts can't afford to maintain them. The proposal would authorize spending through 2030 to help these districts with their operating costs, including consolidating smaller districts to help improve their management and finances.

But instead of coming from the state's general fund and its bountiful surplus, lawmakers agreed to take the money from the state's cap and trade program. The program requires the state's biggest polluters, like oil refineries and farms, to buy credits to let them pollute. It has generated more than $9.5 billion since its inception, and state officials are supposed to use that money to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to improve the environment and public health.

That's why some lawmakers are alarmed at the idea of raiding the program to pay for things outside of the program's original purpose.

"We're pitting clean water against clean air. We know Californians can and must have both of them," said state Sen. Bob Wieckowski, a Democrat from Fremont who was the only lawmaker to vote against the bill on Monday.

State Sen. Bill Monning, a Democrat from Carmel, said climate change has hurt California's water quality by reducing surface water flows, accelerating the decline of groundwater basins and "increasing concentrations of environmental contamination."

"I see ourselves with this bill as first responders, as emergency first responders to communities for whom many of us this is a theoretical challenge because we enjoy and take for granted clean, safe drinking water when we turn on the tap," Monning said. "Too often when we talk about climate change we refer to a future risk. Members, climate change is upon us."

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