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California, the world's fifth-largest economy, has a Third World drinking water problem

California, the world's fifth-largest economy, has a Third World drinking water problem
A resident at a water filtration station in the front of St. Anthony's Trailer Park on September 23, 2015 in Mecca, California. (Los Angeles Times)

Even in times of drought, California’s natural and human-made arteries run with the nation’s cleanest, most accessible water. So fundamental is the stuff to the state’s identity and to its residents’ daily lives that California law recognizes a human right to “safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking, and sanitary purposes.”

Yet the taps in hundreds of communities produce only toxic brown fluid because years of environmental degradation have contaminated parts of the water table, and because extreme poverty has blocked residents and their leaders from upgrading their water infrastructure or from connecting to the systems of their neighbors. That means that many thousands of Californians can’t brush their teeth or take a shower, much less drink a glass of water from the tap, without risking sickness. It’s a Third World problem in the world’s fifth-largest economy.

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Talks to remedy the problem dragged on for years until the state came, last summer, to the brink of a fair and workable solution under which industrial and agricultural interests would finally pay to remedy years of pollution, and water users in more fortunate communities would chip in to finally complete an interconnected system that would bring high-quality water to every Californian.

But municipal water agencies balked at the prospect of a new fee, and the legislative solution dried up. It was revived by Gov. Jerry Brown in the budget process, but then last week that also failed.

Many thousands of Californians can’t brush their teeth or take a shower, much less drink a glass of water from the tap, without risking sickness.


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The political sticking point has less to do with water than with another essential California liquid — gasoline. Lawmakers last year raised fuel taxes to fund transportation projects, but that deal was so contentious that it resulted in the recall of an assemblyman and made everyone jittery about the word “tax.” That makes the 95 cents that would be added to most Californians’ monthly water bills seem, at least for the present, less politically palatable.

But lawmakers should get over it. There is still time to complete the deal to create the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund. The alternatives floated by water agencies would not raise the money needed to finance the necessary construction, operations and maintenance. The state general fund, as we have seen in recent years, swings wildly with the economy and is not a reliable source of the necessary funding. The griping about how to divvy up the burden among water agencies, agribusiness and others is simply a bid to reopen negotiations that already concluded with a fair solution. The state has declared that every resident has a right to clean, affordable water. It’s time to make good on that commitment.

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