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Solving a third-world problem in our backyard

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Senate Bill 623 would create a fund designed to provide emergency relief and also a sustainable long-term solution by funding water treatment facilities that these small water systems cannot afford on their own. (Courtesy photo)
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When this state’s severe, years-long drought ended this winter with the arrival of a prodigious amount of rain and a bountiful snowpack, most Californians felt a sense of relief.
It meant our fundamental human right to clean, safe, affordable and accessible water would be preserved.

It meant the end of a collective unease about the continuing availability of one of life’s absolute necessities. It meant we no longer had to ponder the horrendous consequences of what life would be like if we turned on the faucet and clean, safe water would not flow.

For about 1 million Californians, however, the nightmare that the rest of us only briefly contemplated is a daily fact of life.

They suffer from a water crisis no amount of rainfall can solve. The groundwater systems upon which they rely are contaminated, and their only source of drinking water is that which can be purchased and delivered in jugs or bottles.

There are about 300 unsafe drinking water systems across the state, and together they present a public health problem greater in scope than the well-chronicled water crisis in Flint, Mich.

These water systems serve small, mostly rural communities in the Central Valley, the Inland Empire and the Central Coast. By and large, they serve low-income families for whom having to buy water — in addition to paying their water bill — presents a monstrous economic challenge. Some families are spending up to 10 percent of their incomes on drinking water.

It is a third-world problem that cannot be tolerated in a state as prosperous and proud as California. It’s long past time that the Legislature, working with state and local water agencies and rural communities, produced a sustainable solution that will ensure for all Californians what state law proclaims to be a basic right to water that is clean and safe for human consumption.

Such a solution is at hand, and it commands the Legislature’s attention and support as this year’s lawmaking session enters its final month. It is an elegant, bipartisan plan supported by environmental groups such as Clean Water Action, health groups such as the American Heart Association and farm groups including the California Rice Commission and the Western Growers Association.

Senate Bill 623, authored by Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel, would create a Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund designed to provide emergency relief and also a sustainable long-term solution by funding water treatment facilities that these small water systems cannot afford on their own.

Funding would come from two sources.

Because in many cases the source of contamination is a high concentration of nitrates, an unavoidable byproduct of farming operations, the agricultural community is stepping up to support a small fee to cover nitrate-related costs. The legislation would also provide regulatory certainty for farmers while they continue to implement practices to reduce the impacts of fertilizers on groundwater.

Also contributing to the problem are other contaminants, such as arsenic and perchlorate, that are not related to agricultural operations. It is a statewide problem, so the funding structure also includes a statewide solution — a modest fee of less than $1 a month on the water bills for residents and businesses. That replicates a model used for such basic services as electricity, in which all users pay a small fee to ensure that low-income families have access to these necessities.

A recent poll showed that two-thirds of Californians — alarmed by the plight of those without access to a safe water supply — support this approach.

The fact that 1 million Californians cannot use water from their taps to mix baby formula, make iced tea, brush their teeth, or simply to straight-up quench their thirsts ought to be unacceptable. It is a problem we are morally compelled to solve, and a sensible solution is at hand.

Tim Johnson is president and CEO of the California Rice Commission.

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