On July 25 Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 200, the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund.
He chose the community of Tombstone Territory in Fresno County to sign the bill to highlight the lack of safe drinking water in rural California. Tombstone is a small neighborhood of about four blocks less than 1 mile from the town of Sanger.
Sanger has a centralized community water system. But Tombstone, like many small rural communities, relies on private wells. Two years ago the community learned that its water had levels of nitrate above state health standards and high levels of bacteria. Nitrates can be especially dangerous, especially for babies, because they decrease the ability of their blood to carry oxygen.
Since then Tombstone residents have had to buy bottled water for drinking and cooking. They are not alone. It is estimated that one million Californians have no access to safe drinking water. Domestic wells and small community water systems throughout the San Joaquin Valley have been declared contaminated, a situation that was made worse by the state’s devastating drought.
In a quote from the Fresno Bee Newsom said, “”The idea that we’re living in a state with a million people who don’t have access to clean, safe and affordable drinking water is a disgrace,” he said. “This is the wealthiest state. This is the wealthiest democracy in the world, and it’s happened on our watch. We own this. Those who want to criticize us are right. We’ve been neglectful, and it’s outrageous.”
The bill provides for the administration of $130 million annually for the next 10 years to clean up groundwater across the state, particularly in agricultural communities. The bill contains an urgency clause and will immediately become effective.
The priority of the bill is not just to clean up the water from private wells but to consolidate some of the state’s 7,000 water systems and provide funding to maintain and operate that infrastructure. Maintaining the infrastructure of a small water system has been a huge stumbling block in the past for rural poor communities finding a permanent solution to cleaning their contaminated water.
The bill, sponsored by State Senator Bill Monning, (D) San Luis Obispo, passed the senate 37-1.
Newsom wanted to pay for the bill through a new tax. “The right way to fund water cleanup would be to require the polluters to pay,” said the Sierra Club. Newsom’s original proposal was to levy a tax on commercial, residential, and agriculture users.
Demonstrating that the minority Republican Party in California can influence new legislation, Senate Republican Leader Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield) fought for the bill not to be paid through a new tax but through the General Fund, said the following about the bill:
“My Senate Republican colleagues and I support providing clean drinking water for our hardworking families without raising taxes. The State’s inability to provide clean drinking water to some of California’s most rural and disadvantaged communities is a moral failure.
“Having clean drinking water is a necessity, and Senate Republicans worked to help these disadvantaged families without raising taxes or creating a fee. With a $22 billion budget surplus in this state, there was no need to raise taxes on Californians.”
The Community Water Center, a group that mobilizes disadvantaged communities through organizing, education, and advocacy to solve their water problems, took part in the bill signing ceremony.
Director Susan de Anda said in a statement, “The fact that this victory was secured by the direct advocacy, over the course of years and decades, of impacted communities themselves, once again demonstrates the power of people to change the trajectory of their society toward a place of greater justice.”