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California governor's plan to create new drinking water tax faces resistance

Key Points
  • Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom wants to fund a safe drinking water program in disadvantaged communities by taxing water customers.
  • But a plan by a Democratic lawmaker that would tap into the state's record budget surplus instead is finding support.
  • Newsom's tax would cost water customers up to $10 per month but exempt low-income households.
Sign in the San Joaquin Valley of California protesting water politics and the construction of high speed rail lines, with text reading Dams Not Trains, Build Water Storage NOW, along the Interstate 5 freeway, created by political group Families Protecting the Valley, December 9, 2018.
Smith Collection | Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, wants to create a tax on water customers to fund a safe drinking water program in disadvantaged communities. But a rival proposal by a lawmaker from his own party seeks to tap into the state's record budget surplus instead.

One million Californians live without clean water for drinking or bathing, according to Newsom. He recently called attention to hundreds of water systems in the state that are out of compliance with primary drinking water quality standards because of contamination by lead, arsenic or uranium.

Newsom's tax would cost water customers up to $10 per month but exempt low-income households. The tax would fund programs to fix contaminated wells and water treatment systems.

"We are a huge economy, and it's sort of outrageous that everyone here doesn't have access to safe, affordable and clean water," said Peter Gleick, president emeritus of the Pacific Institute, an Oakland, California-based think tank.

One of the regions with a history of contaminated water is the San Joaquin Valley, the heart of California's agriculture industry. Experts say some of the contamination in the Central Valley involves nitrates and is due to fertilizers applied by farmers, livestock operations and bad septic systems.

"The problem in the Central Valley is that there are a lot of communities dependent on groundwater," said Gleick. "They are not tied to a big municipal system that has water treatment plants."

Yet even some of the urban systems in the state have had contamination due to industrial or hazardous waste sites, including communities in Los Angeles and Riverside counties. One concern in portions of Southern California is chromium-6 — a toxic substance linked to cancer — found in some groundwater basins due to industrial production.

In addition, Northern California's San Mateo County has been cited with violations by state regulators. Some of the cases involve nitrate-contaminated water in rural areas such as Pescadero, a small farming community.

In the past, California voters have approved bonds that have helped fund projects for water recycling, water quality and flood protection.

Newsom's plan proposes to raise about $140 million annually from the tax on water customers. The tax would range from 95 cents to $10 a month.

A similar drinking water tax plan touted last year by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown failed in the Legislature. Some have suggested that state legislators didn't rally around the Brown tax due to a political firestorm created after the 2017 passage of a gasoline tax increase.

Orange County voters in June recalled a Democratic lawmaker from his state Senate seat. Sen. Josh Newman, whose seat was taken by a Republican, had been linked to Brown's $52 billion transportation package, which included a 40 percent increase in the state's excise gas tax as well as increased vehicle fees.

About 3,000 local water systems around the state would be responsible for collecting the tax.

The Association of California Water Agencies, a lobbying group, spoke out against Newsom's tax at a hearing last week, saying some agencies would need to hire additional staff and could incur other expenses to implement the tax.

Instead, ACWA supports an alternate plan proposed by Democratic state Sen. Anna Caballero that creates a Safe Drinking Water Trust supported by general funds, not new drinking water taxes. Caballero's Senate Bill 669 is finding support of state lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, but Newsom's plan has won the backing of some agricultural groups in the state.

"While most Californians have access to safe drinking water, certain disadvantaged communities do not, and we strongly agree with Gov. Gavin Newsom that this is a critical public health issue that the state must address," said Cindy Tuck, deputy executive director for government relations for ACWA.

The state's record budget surplus "makes this the perfect time to create and fund a Safe Drinking Water Trust and ensure access to safe drinking water for residents of these disadvantaged communities," Tuck said.