Op-Ed

California's water crisis is dangerous, just like Flint's. Will the state clean it up once and for all?

The lead-poisoned drinking water crisis in Flint, Mich., has gotten all the headlines, but California has a water contamination problem that endangers far more people, and it has existed for decades. State officials knew for a generation that many Californians lack access to clean, safe drinking water, yet, disgracefully, they did not begin to address the issue until five years ago.

The state Legislature is now poised to chalk up a historic achievement as it negotiates Senate Bill 623, which would establish a fund to subsidize adequate water treatment for most of the roughly 1 million Californians who still need it. It’s the last step in enabling small, impoverished water systems throughout the state to deliver clean water to their customers.

As co-director of the Visalia-based Community Water Center, Laurel Firestone has helped lead an underdog campaign for clean water over the last decade. “This is the moment,” she told me over the phone. “We’re finally at a point where we could actually solve this.”

The state’s bad water is concentrated in the mostly Latino farmworker communities of the San Joaquin Valley, but nearly all of California’s 58 counties include small, rural communities with tainted water. Residents there are forced to take their chances or spend an inordinate amount of their usually small incomes on bottled water.

The biggest danger is arsenic, which like uranium, another contaminant, occurs naturally in the soil in some parts of the state. Drink enough arsenic-contaminated water and you may contract cancer or other grave diseases.

Farmers bear responsibility for nitrate, the second-biggest contamination source, which enters the water supply from agricultural runoff and manure. Nitrate can cause “blue baby syndrome,” a potentially fatal disorder in infants, and other serious ailments in pregnant women and children.

Racism plays a part in the contamination crisis, but so do poverty, patchwork water systems, and, until recently, an overestimation of the quantity of contaminants required to trigger illness. On top of that, the dominant water narrative in the state pits farmers against fish and environmentalists; clean water advocates have had trouble catching politicians’ attention with their equally important story.

Regardless of the reasons for the crisis, the government’s longstanding neglect of the problem has been appalling. In some cases, as cities with good water treatment facilities grew, they all but surrounded smaller unincorporated communities that didn’t have the funds to fix their contaminated water, yet the larger cities refused to absorb the smaller systems.

In Tulare County, for example, the 1971 general plan went so far as to name 15 unincorporated low-income and minority communities whose drinking water and wastewater infrastructure was deemed unworthy of investment because the communities had “little or no authentic future.” In fact, 13 of the 15 communities still exist, but the exclusionary policy stayed in the county’s general plan until about a decade ago.

As Latino political power and the environmental justice movement have grown, the issue has gained traction. In 2012, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation making California the first state to recognize that “every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable and accessible water.”

“We really did a big campaign to get that established,” Firestone said. “Since then, we’ve tried to build on that in multi-faceted ways.”

One important step was Senate Bill 88, passed in 2015, which empowered the State Water Resources Control Board to require consolidation of bad water systems into adequate ones. In February, the water board began publicly identifying water systems that are out of compliance with state and federal clean water regulations on its Human Right to Water Portal website.

Most tellingly, new water quality regulations issued by regional water boards allowed the state to threaten punitive enforcement actions against farmers whose practices have contributed to nitrate contamination. In response, the farmers are negotiating with legislators over a provision in SB 623 to set a regular fee they will pay into the new water treatment fund.

Impoverished systems can tap an array of federal and state grants for capital improvements to their treatment equipment, but they still lack funding for operations and maintenance. SB 263 will make available the few hundred million dollars a year needed for that purpose. It’s a modest sum for a state with an annual budget of more than $170 billion, and, as water board Deputy Director Darrin Polhemus explained to me, subsidizing “the high cost of operations and maintenance in these small systems is essential.”

In addition to collecting money from growers to finance the fund, the legislation would charge the state’s water users a small fee on their monthly bills, in the same way that telephone users subsidize phone service for the needy. Because this amounts to a tax, SB 623 needs the support of two-thirds of the state’s legislators — a high but not insurmountable bar.

A recent poll paid for by the California Water Foundation found that 72% of Californians are willing to pay as much as an extra dollar per month on their water bills to fix the contaminated systems. This is a powerful indication that Californians want to make good on the state’s groundbreaking 2012 proclamation: Clean drinking water is a human right, and providing it, is an act of simple human decency.

Jacques Leslie is a contributing writer to Opinion.

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