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All Californians should enjoy safe drinking water. A small fee would be the solution

In 2015 Leticia Fernandez used only bottled water for drinking as did most of the residents of Cantua Creek. Here she hauled a five-gallon bottle into her home.
In 2015 Leticia Fernandez used only bottled water for drinking as did most of the residents of Cantua Creek. Here she hauled a five-gallon bottle into her home. Fresno Bee file

We have a drinking water crisis in California—a crisis that has disproportionately impacted disadvantaged neighborhoods and communities of color for years.

There is however hope as many voices, from many different people, with various political views, have now joined the fight to address this crisis.

This fight is personal for me. I was born in Fresno to parents who labored long hours in the Valley’s fields as farm workers. I grew up in rural communities and I can remember my parents fear, even back then, that our water wasn’t safe. They were so concerned, in fact, that they spent $5,000 on what they thought was a water purification system. Turned out it was nothing more than a water softener. The salesperson took advantage of my parents: softeners don’t eliminate arsenic or nitrates. As a young girl, I sat at the table and watched this deal happen. To this day, it makes be burn with anger because at the time, my parents only made about $18,000 per year; the investment was substantial for them, but they were willing to go into debt to protect us. Poor families shouldn’t have to go into debt like that for clean water and they shouldn’t have to pay high prices for water they can’t use and then again for bottled water.

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Fresno Bee file

Health equity is my profession and my passion. I’m interested in ensuring everyone has access to clean water because our collective health depends on it. It is also fundamental to my responsibility as a trustee for the Fresno Unified School District, to advocate and protect the health of students. Students need access to safe drinking water in schools because thirst and dehydration undermine a focus on learning. We cannot expect our students to reach their fullest potential if we do not create optional conditions for learning. Children growing up in communities without safe drinking water have two options; stay thirsty or consume cheap, sugar-sweetened drinks. The later leads to a range of health issues, like obesity and diabetes, and poor dental health, all of which detract from successful academic achievement. We need to eliminate every disadvantage we can for our children. Ensuring access to clean potable water is a worthy fight for everyone.

Our elected officials need to join us and act now. More than 1 million residents in our state live without access to a resource that is a human right, and these fellow Californians live in every part of the state, from the Bay Area and Los Angeles to San Diego and here in the Central Valley. Underscoring the seriousness of the problem, there are a few options the Legislature is considering to address this emergency, including AB 217 (Eduardo Garcia) and SB 200 ( Bill Monning). Complementary to leading legislative proposals, Gov. Gavin Newsom has made it very clear: providing safe, affordable drinking water for all Californians is one of his administration’s top priorities. And all parties agree on the need for the establishment of an ongoing, sustainable fund.

A dedicated and ongoing fund for safe and affordable drinking water is a complete solution. We cannot settle for anything less than a complete solution. This fund provides the needed level of resources annually (about $140 million) to clean up contaminated water, whether it is delivered by small water systems, domestic wells and urban areas affected by lead, like portions of Fresno. The small fee proposed by the governor that would make all Californians part of the safe drinking water solution is supported by two-thirds of Californians surveyed. A fee is not the deal breaker. Communities who face the worst health fears and high water bills have stated that they would gladly pay a couple of quarters to fix toxic taps. The governor’s proposal includes a low-income exemption for the safe drinking water fee to reinforce the state’s commitment to support safe and affordable drinking water for everyone in the state. We have a great proposal, we have support from impacted communities, we have accommodations for low-income households. All we need now is our legislators to cast the votes needed to establish a fund.

We have a drinking water crisis putting Californians at risk for cancer, birth defects, heart disease, diabetes and infant mortality. It’s time to right this wrong and ensure that every family in every neighborhood has access to safe drinking water.

Genoveva Islas is director of Cultiva Salud in Fresno and is a trustee on the Fresno Unified School Board.
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