Nine bills aim to provide clean drinking across the state

Photo: jcheng/Flickr

Martha Saldibar lives in Moss Landing, surrounded by agricultural fields. Last month she spent $90 on water. About $50 paid for the nitrate-contaminated water that comes out of her tap that she can’t drink or cook with. The remaining $40 bought bottled water that is safe for her family and pets to consume. A neighbor says it’s been that way for decades.

Every month, Saldibar said, she gets a letter from her water system saying they’re working on getting a new well but they don’t have the funding.

Approximately 200,000 Californians served by community water systems receive drinking water that regularly exceeds health standards, according to the California Department of Public Health.

Despite the fact that there is some money available for interim fixes and emergency drinking water, many residents of disadvantaged communities throughout California have gone for years, sometimes decades, paying for both contaminated tap water and bottled water for drinking and cooking.

A package of nine Assembly bills by Assemblymen Luis Alejo (D-Watsonville), Henry Perea (D-Fresno), Manuel Perez (D-Indio), Anthony Rendon (D-South Gate) and Mark Stone (D-Santa Cruz) proposes different ways to make drinking water safe. The bills have passed through the state assembly and are making their way through the Senate.

The legislation proposes emergency funding for communities without safe drinking water, policy changes to help communities work together on solutions and become eligible for funding, moving the oversight of the state’s drinking water program to a more efficient agency and implementing ideas for long-term solutions for cleaning up the state’s ground water.

If signed into law, these bills could mean a big relief to communities like Kettleman City. Assemblyman Alejo visited residents there and found that they are having to travel 40 miles each way to Hanford in Kings County to buy clean drinking water. The situation continues despite the $455 million in federal funding provided to the CDHP as of last October. The funds, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, were supposed to provide emergency water and water system fixes for communities like Kettleman.

“They were having to spend their hard-earned money on drinking water, something the California Department of Public Health should have been helping them with decades ago,” Alejo said. “While they’re suffering and worrying if they’ll have water the next day our state, the CDPH, is sitting on $455 million. That brought a lot of support for these bills.”

On April 19 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gave the CDPH a notice of noncompliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act. The unspent $455 million is the largest amount of unspent money of any state, the EPA reported.

The agency’s corrective action plan was recently accepted by the EPA, CDPH stated in an e-mail response to questions. They expect to reduce the amount of federal unspent funds to below $160 million by the end of fiscal year 2015-2016. CDHP added that several changes have already been made, such as offering funding for planning as well as construction and creating more opportunities for grants to public water systems serving disadvantaged communities.

Those efforts have not deterred legislators. The most controversial bill in the package, AB 145, would transfer the oversight and regulation of drinking water, including the funding source for drinking water projects, the Safe Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, from the California Department of Public Health to the State Water Resources Control Board.

This would consolidate all water quality programs into the state agency whose focus is water quality, the bill states. The Water Resources Control Board is more responsive and effective and provides for more public participation, said Bob Fredenburg, chief consultant for the Assembly Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee.

This reorganization should get the federal funding through the Safe Drinking Water State Revolving Fund flowing to communities that need it, he said. But the bill does not have consensus and there is quite a bit of opposition, he added.

Alejo and other legislators hope that AB 145 could assist people like Saldibar, whose water contains nitrates which have been linked to thyroid illness, some cancers and reproductive problems according to a 2012 study by the University of California, Davis called Addressing Nitrate in California’s Drinking Water.

“I wish I could move, but I can’t afford it,” Saldibar said. Many of her neighbors are afraid to attend community meetings to address the issue. They work in the fields and don’t have immigration papers, she said.

“We live in a rural area, we’re paying taxes but we still have all these problems,” she said.

One of the bills that could help her neighborhood is AB 69, which would establish a Nitrate At Risk Area Fund by collecting a fee on nitrogen fertilizers sold. That money would fund research and education regarding the use of fertilizers and more sound nutrient management practices to help disadvantaged communities with nitrate-contaminated drinking water.

Last September Governor Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 685 by former Assemblyman Mike Eng stating that every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable and accessible water. Alejo described that bill was an important symbolic measure.

“This year it’s about how we make that a reality,” he said. The nine bills currently in the Senate are part of the solution, he said.

One of the bills Alejo co-authored is AB 21 which would create the Safe Drinking Water Small Community Emergency Grant Fund to serve disadvantaged communities. That idea resulted from Governor Brown’s Drinking Water Stakeholder Group, which convened last summer. The bill proposes that when loans are made through the State Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, an annual charge is deposited in the grant fund in lieu of interest paid on the loan.

Many small disadvantaged communities don’t have enough rate payers to finance infrastructure improvements. In order to be sustainable, a water system needs between 250 and 500 water connections or users, said Jeanette Pantoja, a water and land use community worker for California Rural Legal Assistance. She works with small communities from Watsonville to San Luis Obispo and the largest water system she’s working with has only 70 connections and one well.

AB 115 would help disadvantaged communities become more eligible and competitive for loans and grants by allowing them to consolidate with larger water systems to apply for state funding.

One of the biggest obstacles to getting funding to small water systems is poor outreach.

Pantoja works with the Iverson and Jacks Apartments, better known as Camp 21, 10 miles southeast of Salinas. It is a labor camp of about 165 people, many of them farm workers. They have nitrates in their water so they can’t drink or cook with it or wash their vegetables with it.

The owner of the property got a grant through the CDPH funded through Prop 84 funds to dig some test wells to find a clean source of water. But even though the owner was working with the CDPH, she had no idea there was also grant money available through that department to provide emergency drinking water for her residents, Pantoja said.

“It’s not just about making the funding available, you have to tell people it exists,” she said. And even if communities are able to get on the CDHP’s priority list for funding, that is no guarantee they’ll get funding anytime soon,” Pantoja said.

“We’ve had communities on that list for 10 years at least with water they can’t drink,” she said.

AB 467 proposes aid especially for these types of disadvantaged communities. It would create the Freshwater Protection Fund to help with emergency response and removal of contamination, groundwater monitoring, programs for providing alternate drinking water supplies and a long list of other remedies.

“There are a lot of different strategies we could be working on,” Alejo said.

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