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Senate Bill 623 could resurface when Assembly begins a new legislative session begins in January

Senate Bill 623 could resurface when Assembly begins a new legislative session begins in January

sacramento – Access to clean water should be a basic human right that should be upheld at every level of government. But in California, the richest agriculture state with the most communities struggling with contaminated water, it was drowned out by housing reform, a parks and water bond and immigration.

Senate Bill 623, a legislative answer to funding projects that could rid contaminants from the water supply of disadvantaged communities, was a political casualty in the final days of the legislative session that ended last month. The bill was held in the Assembly Rules Committee and was lost amidst negotiations for much more controversial issues.

Introduced by Senator William Monning from Santa Cruz, SB 623 is intended to establish the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund to provide an ongoing source of funding ensure all Californians have access to safe drinking water. The bill would have assessed a fee of $0.005 per dollar for all sales of fertilizing materials and $0.01355 per hundredweight of milk from payments made to producers for milk and $0.95 per month on every water bill except people with incomes 200% below the poverty level.

California Citrus Mutual (CCM), an Exeter-based trade association for citrus growers and a supporter of the bill, said some Assembly members “balked at the idea of ‘another fee’ following the passage of the transportation (gas tax) and cap and trade legislation.”

The news came a little more than a month after a coalition of farmers, local officials representing disadvantaged communities, residents living without access to clean water and environmentalists gathered in front of the Tulare County Board of Supervisors chambers for a Sept. 6 press conference urging the legislature to pass the bill.

The California State Water Board (SWB) has identified roughly 300 public water systems currently out of compliance. And since other sources of funding such as bond funding or the Safe Drinking Water State Revolving Fund do not qualify for operations and maintenance costs, there is a constant lack of adequate available funding for those things. Without that funding there is little rural communities can do to treat nitrates and other harmful chemicals out of their drinking water.

Alyssa Houtby, director of public affairs for CCM, said those in attendance were a historic coalition of agriculture, environmental justice and elected officials. She said instead of blaming farming for nitrates, the coalition understands that groundwater is affected by both naturally occurring elements such as sulfur and arsenic, as well as man-made contaminants such as nitrates, a byproduct of fertilizer.

“Access to clean drinking water is a fundamental right but the legislature failed to deliver on this promise,” Houtby said. “Never in history have ag and environmental justice been able to come to an agreement. This is a historical precedent that we are setting here today.”

The fees established by the bill would be deposited into the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund in the Office of Sustainable Water Solutions of the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB). The money would then be prioritized to focus on disadvantaged and low income domestic well users.

CCM engaged in the negotiations following SWRCB action against 27 growers in the Central Valley, about half of whom farm citrus, demanding they pay to provide clean drinking water to specified communities.  The SWRCB took similar action against growers in Salinas and entered into a settlement that will end up costing them millions.  Houtby said SB 623 is a common-sense solution that will provide clean drinking water to Californians and spread the cost across all water users, not just farmers.

“The bill is a product of months of negotiation and although we did not achieve the desired outcome this year, we look forward to continuing our efforts to pass SB 623 and have it signed by the Governor when the legislature reconvenes in January,” Houtby said in a released statement last month.

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