Close to Home: Californians deserve safe drinking water

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There is nothing new about political divisions in California. Congested coastal cities skew from moderately liberal to relentlessly progressive. Rural inland regions, with vast and bountiful fields, range from independent to hardcore conservative. But the state’s divided political tribes may have found a unifying goal — safe, sustainable drinking water.

The lack of safe drinking water has been California’s dirty little secret for years. The problem has been mostly hidden away in rural communities from the Central Valley to the southern deserts, and even a few in Northern California.

That’s where generations of rural families have relied on bottled or boiled water for drinking, bathing and cooking. They spend large chunks of their earnings on the most basic commodity of all — water.

The refusal of California to provide safe drinking water for its citizens is a crisis of immense proportions. A UC Davis study in 2018 estimated almost 100,000 residents in the San Joaquin Valley alone lack access to clean water. The study’s authors estimated the problem impacts more than a million people statewide.

Farmers know the facts are probably worse than reported. Water-quality surveys typically focus on publicly owned water districts. But in many rural California agricultural communities, water comes from privately owned wells.

And much of that water contains arsenic, nitrates and uranium contaminates that make it unfit for people to drink.

Clean water has been a pressure point at the state Capitol for years. Remedies have been elusive, thanks to the politics of taxation. Solving the state’s drinking-water crisis is expensive, and many of the state’s moderate and conservative legislators, both Democrat and Republican, have been reluctant to accept tax proposals to improve rural water quality.

But that reluctance is evaporating. Major players in California’s agriculture industry have offered to support Gov. Gavin Newsom’s ideas for mitigation to clean up public and private rural water supplies.

Newsom drew a bold, red circle around the problem in his State of the State address. He said the lack of safe drinking water is “a moral disgrace and medical emergency.” He added, “Just this morning, more than a million Californians are without clean drinking water to bath in or drink.”

Soon after taking office, Newsom took his Cabinet — top administrators who direct the state’s bureaucracy — on a field trip to witness the safe-water crisis up close. He also signed AB 72, which provides $131.3 million for safe drinking water. The money comes from the state’s general fund for emergencies.

Fittingly, Newsom signed AB 72 at Riverview Elementary in Fresno County.

Water contamination forced the school to shut down its drinking fountains. Children at Riverview drink bottled water.

The governor knows emergency relief dollars won’t fix the problem. At best, the money will provide overdue emergency repairs and more bottled water.

Newsom is trying to work with the Legislature to produce a more sustainable solution. His budget proposal includes the framework for a statewide fund to produce clean drinking water.

The fund would be based on fees tied to water consumption across California, not just in impacted rural communities. We would all share the burden.

The proposal would likely charge water utility customers anywhere from 95 cents to $10 per month, depending on their meter size, plus commercial fees on animal farmers, dairies and fertilizer companies like mine.

Newsom has support from key figures in the agricultural industry, but the political challenges can’t be minimized. A less-ambitious plan backed by former Gov. Jerry Brown died in the Legislature.

“It’s not 1819. It’s not even 1919. It’s 2019,” Newsom said recently. “And we’re talking about a $20 billion surplus, and we’re the fifth-largest economy in the world, and we’ve got all this bravado and our entrepreneurial spirit, but we can’t even provide basic drinking water to 1 million-plus Californians? Pathetic.”

That’s a blunt lesson for children who must drink bottled water. Those kids and their families deserve better from California.

Lucas Deniz owns Deniz Dairy in Petaluma.

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