EDITORIAL: Bill must not be derailed

The California Department of Public Health has fumbled the responsibility of ensuring that Californians -- especially those in small rural communities -- have clean, safe and affordable drinking water too many times to count.

That is why Assembly Member Henry T. Perea is pushing Assembly Bill 145. His legislation would shift the drinking water program from the health department to the State Water Resources Control Board, an agency with regulatory power over tainted groundwater and a track record of moving federal money to communities in need.

The proposal, however, is stirring strong opposition. For example, the Association of California Water Agencies says that the State Water Resources Control Board already has too many responsibilities to take on one more.

True, the board has a lot on its plate. But public health does, too. The $3 billion public health bureaucracy is tasked with 150 different functions -- handling everything from hospital licensing to regulating the movement of radioactive material.

And its parent organization, the California Health and Human Services Agency, is charged with the herculean effort of implementing state components of the Affordable Care Act.

Besides, the health department has amply demonstrated that it is incapable of moving faster than at a snail's to help communities with dirty, polluted and unhealthy water.

The agency's record is so poor, in fact, that in April the federal Environmental Protection Agency sent a blistering letter to state officials threatening to suspend payments if the state didn't speed up disbursement of $455 million to water districts needing to upgrade their drinking water systems.

The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office says that moving the program to the state water board provides long-term advantages such as better transparency and greater public participation, as well as policy integration with other water issues.

In addition, Perea said Friday that "the governor's office is on board" with AB 145 and is working on an implementation plan.

There will be a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on the legislation Monday. We urge the senators to do the right thing and move this bill forward.

Californians shouldn't be forced to choose between buying bottled water or endangering their health with tap water containing high levels of arsenic and nitrates.