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Local water officials oppose drinking water cleanup plan that would tax users

Area water officials support helping low-income districts across the state clean up their drinking water supplies but have categorically opposed a recent budget trailer bill being considered in Sacramento that would impose a permanent statewide water tax to fund it.

Officials from Foothill Municipal Water District — which serves La Cañada Irrigation District, Valley Water Co. and the Crescenta Valley and Mesa Crest water districts, among others — are joining others in voicing opposition to the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Act.

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Derived mainly from Senate Bill-623, introduced last year by state Sen. Bill Monning (D-Carmel), the legislation would impose agricultural fees on businesses that historically contribute to nitrate contamination of groundwater supplies as well as a meter-based tax on water customers.

According to the rates outlined in the bill, customers whose water meters are 1 inch in diameter or less would pay an additional $0.95 per month. Larger homes, which may use meters up to 2 inches in diameter would be charged $2 per month, while larger commercial customers with meters less than 4 inches in diameter would be charged $6 monthly and those with meters larger than 4 inches would be charged $10 a month.

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If passed by a two-thirds majority in the house and senate, the tax component alone could raise an estimated $110 million annually. Agricultural fees associated with bulk fertilizer sales, dairy milk production and businesses involving confined animals would raise another $30 million per year.

Those funds would be collected by the State Water Resource Control Board, which would be responsible for assisting nearly 300 public water systems currently out of compliance with drinking water standards. Those largely rural systems, which serve 692,807 people across California, typically cannot afford the cost of water treatment and the ongoing operation and maintenance of such systems.

Foothill Municipal General Manager Nina Jazmadarian said while there is certainly a need to assist low-income water districts and customers, imposing a tax that would disproportionately burden urban communities would turn retail agencies into de facto tax collectors and set a troubling precedent for the likelihood of future taxes.

"We have no problem with something being done to assist these areas," Jazmadarian said. "Our problem is putting a tax on something which is essential to life. And the people who are getting taxed aren't going to be getting the benefit of the tax."

Foothill Municipal currently serves about 80,000 customers through 25,000 meters, 90% of which are residential. Jazmadarian estimates the budget bill would collect about $575,000 from the district each year.

"There are other ways of paying these disadvantaged communities to help them improve their water systems," she said.

The Assn. of California Water Agencies, a coalition of more than 430 public agencies that also opposes the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Act, has put forth several alternative funding suggestions that would allow state lawmakers to avoid a water tax.

Cindy Tuck, the association's deputy executive director for government relations, explained opponents of the proposal are asking state officials to consider seeking funding by maintaining the agricultural fees but dropping the water tax. Instead, she said, funds could be sought through the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act, general obligation bonds that let voters decide whether to be taxed and a commitment of state general fund money.

"The problem the bill's trying to solve is really a social issue for the state of California, so the state should put up the funding," Tuck said.

The Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Act is scheduled to be heard by the state Assembly's Budget Subcommittee March 14 at 11 a.m. before moving on to the Senate the following day.

Twitter: @SaraCardine

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