Water & Drought

Billionaire environmentalist’s latest fight is clean water for San Joaquin Valley

Tom Steyer, the San Francisco billionaire and environmentalist, promised his support Tuesday for a proposed safe and affordable drinking water fund to help communities with contaminated water in the San Joaquin Valley.

“It’s unjust for a million Californians to be exposed to unsafe water on a daily basis,” Steyer said. “That just can’t be right and we’ve got to find the money to solve it.”

Steyer met with about a dozen water advocates at the nonprofit Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability in downtown Fresno who urged him to throw his clout behind Senate Bill 623. Legislation introduced by Sen. Bill Monning, D-Monterey, wouldestablish the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund to provide an ongoing source of funding to ensure all Californians have access to safe and affordable drinking water.

According to the state, 36 public water systems serving more than 35,000 people in Fresno County are currently out of compliance for a range of contaminants, including arsenic and nitrates. And of 306 communities across California that are out of compliance with primary safe drinking water standards, 154 are in the eight counties of the Valley. The 154 water systems serve 218,000 people.

Lucy Hernandez, representing Agua Coalition y West Goshen, told Steyer: “In our community, we had three days and three nights without water because our well collapsed; and it was like the worst days of our lives.”

Hernandez said she would like Steyer “to use your influence to talk to people that you know that have the power to change this and to support this bill for us.”

Steyer, who created the nonprofit NextGen Climate, has renamed the organization NextGen America and expanded its mission beyond environmental issues to include health care, immigration rights and equality.

During a news conference Tuesday, Steyer said in 2012 California declared that clean drinking water is a human right, but the state has not lived up to that pledge. Clean drinking water is a justice issue, he said. “People absolutely have a right to clean, safe drinking water.”

Fresno has gained Steyer’s attention before. His wife, Kathryn “Kat” Taylor, came to the city two years ago. Her concern was water and air quality and the effects on the health of the people living here, he said.

Susana DeAnda of the Community Water Center, a Visalia-based advocacy organization, said Steyer would be joining a grass roots movement. “We’re here to share a movement with you. This is not an issue from the top down – it is bottom up. And it’s very alive and we would like you to join this movement to create change and to believe in change.”

Isabel Solorio of Community United in Lanare said residents have not received the help they need from county elected officials.

Lanare, a community of about 600 residents north of Lemoore, has arsenic in the water – a naturally occurring chemical that consumed over the long term can lead to serious health problems, including cancer. A water treatment plant sits useless in the city because it’s too expensive to operate. Residents want new wells drilled that they hope will be arsenic-free.

Steyer said politicians respond to votes, but Fresno County has a complicated web of environmental issues, including poor air and water quality, “which I feel at the heart is political because I feel this area and this city has been poorly represented.”

Fresno County Supervisor Buddy Mendes, who farms near Lanare and represents the area, said he has been responsive to the community’s needs and has tried to help the residents get clean water. But the state has jurisdiction, he said. “The state needs to start listening to what I’m telling them if they want to fix the water problem.”

Steyer said the political timing is now for passage of SB 623, and he’s positive about its success. “This month we really do have a chance to turn this around,” he said. Nationally, attention is focused on justice for everybody, he said. “As bad as Trump is, he makes the point that our system is not fair to everybody and everybody can look at that and say it should be fair to everybody. And that’s why I say, as strange as it is, I think this is a very good time to be making that argument and to be making this fight for clean water for everybody.”

As for his own political ambitions, Steyer has been rumored to have an eye on the governor’s race, but on Tuesday he laughed off a question about a run for the top state office. The former hedge fund manager, who has donated heavily to Democratic candidates, said he gets asked the question a lot. “I haven’t made up my mind,” he said.

Barbara Anderson: 559-441-6310, @beehealthwriter