Capitol Journal: A California tax to clean up toxic drinking water has lawmakers jumpy

Cows are seen at a dairy in Galt, Calif. Gov. Gavin Newsom wants to impose new taxes and fees on water customers as well as animal and dairy farms to pay for cleaning up toxic drinking water, particularly in low-income farmworker communities.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

The ghost of Josh Newman haunts the state Capitol, sending shivers through certain politicians’ spines at the mere mention of the scary word “tax.”

The former lawmaker’s fate will make it difficult for the Legislature — even with supermajority Democratic control — to pass one of Gavin Newsom’s top priorities: a so-called water tax.

The governor says the tiny tax is needed to raise enough money to clean up toxic drinking water throughout California, particularly in low-income farmworker communities of the San Joaquin Valley.


Newman was a state senator from Fullerton who voted in 2017 to increase the gas tax and vehicle registration fees in order to raise $5 billion annually for badly needed road repairs. Two-thirds of the Legislature voted for the bill. It was pushed hard by popular Gov. Jerry Brown.

But as a vulnerable freshman from a competitive district, Newman was blood in the water for political sharks. They attacked with a recall campaign and ousted him from office.

Some of the same sharks, led by former San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio, are circling again — this time around a dozen vulnerable Democratic legislators from swing districts. If these lawmakers dare vote for the water tax, DeMaio has warned, “they will face consequences at the ballot box.”

The water tax will require a two-thirds vote in each house. Democrats have that and a little to spare. Still, the governor will need to use all his power of cajolery and coercion to win passage of any tax increase.

Brown and some lawmakers tried to pass a water tax during the last legislative session, but it was an election year.

“The gas tax made the rest of the Legislature understandably jumpy,” says Anja Raudabaugh, chief executive of Western United Dairymen.

These dairy owners support the water tax, even though milk producers would ante up $5 million annually under the governor’s plan.

“We live in the community and drink the water, too,” Raudabaugh says. “There’s a feeling of responsibility here. We have to help solve the problem because we are part of the problem.”

Cow manure produces nitrate that seeps into the groundwater. The pollutant also is generated by chemical fertilizers spread on crops, food processing operations and septic tanks. That’s a big problem for people who rely on well water.

One bad result of too much nitrate is “blue baby syndrome,” which denies infants enough oxygen. Nitrate also can cause miscarriages, stillbirths, diarrhea and cancer.

A feeling of responsibility, of course, is not the only — nor probably the main — reason for the dairy owners’ willingness to pay a small fee into a water cleanup kitty. They’re afraid that unless the water is cleansed, some dairies will be shut down by the state water board.

There’s a feeling of responsibility here. We have to help solve the problem because we are part of the problem.

— Anja Raudabaugh, chief executive of Western United Dairymen

To secure agriculture support, Newsom has included a “safe harbor” provision in his legislation. It says that if dairies and growers operate under water board rules and pay into the cleansing fund, they’ll be spared cease-and-desist orders.

Arsenic is another common toxin in a lot of people’s drinking water. It occurs naturally but is augmented by fertilizers and pesticides. The deeper the well, the more arsenic. So there’s a huge problem in the over-pumped San Joaquin Valley.

Arsenic can cause skin damage, circulatory trouble and cancer.

A third contaminant is perchlorate, resulting usually from military and industrial uses. Too much can lead to reproductive problems. And it’s considered a likely carcinogen.

“Just this morning, more than a million Californians woke up without clean water to bathe in, let alone drink,” Newsom said in his State of the State speech in February. “This is a moral disgrace and a medical emergency.”

The governor’s legislation would raise about $140 million annually to help poor communities operate and maintain water cleansing facilities.

There’d be a 95-cent charge on every household’s monthly water bill, and up to $10 for the largest commercial users. That would raise $100 million. The remaining $40 million would come from fees on fertilizer sales, dairy producers and animal facilities such as chicken farms.

The day after his State of the State address, Newsom visited an elementary school in Westley, a 75-minute drive south of Sacramento off I-5. There, bottled water has to be hauled in for students, who are mostly children of migrant farmworkers.

“It was an awesome experience for the students,” Principal Arturo Duran says of the governor’s visit.

There’s bad water all over California in poor communities, including those on the Central Coast and in the Coachella Valley.

Rebecca Zaragoza, a community organizer with the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, grew up in a mobile home park in Thermal near Coachella.

“They don’t have water that’s safe to drink,” she says of several local mobile home parks. “They have to buy bottled water. They cook with bottled water. It’s not safe to shower with the tap water either, but there’s not much families can do about that.”

Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia (D-Coachella), who is pushing a rival water tax bill, notes that Thermal is only a short hop from the wealthy enclaves of Indian Wells, Rancho Mirage and La Quinta.

“Their golf courses are probably being watered with cleaner water,” he says.

“This is about 1 million people in the fifth-largest economy on Earth living in third-world conditions when it comes to drinking water.”

It’s also about preying sharks and weak spines.

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