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The next fight in California’s water crisis is over salt, pollutants

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation to provide permanant funding for safe drinking water. The signing came during a July visit to the unincorporated community of Tombstone Terriroty near Sanger.
Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation to provide permanant funding for safe drinking water. The signing came during a July visit to the unincorporated community of Tombstone Terriroty near Sanger. Fresno Bee file

When it comes to drinking water in California — safety, supply and reliability — we can never rest. None of us. For those who think it’s a crisis that only impacts rural communities in our state, you are wrong. Children in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, San Diego and other urban communities are drinking lead-contaminated water from their drinking fountains, and nearly all of California’s 58 counties include communities with tainted water.

The lack of access to safe drinking water is a statewide problem, not solely a San Joaquin Valley issue. And while it is California’s crisis, it impacts the Valley’s low-income families and communities of color disproportionately. They bear the brunt of this medical emergency that is caused in large part by pollution from industrial dairies and agriculture.

Our organizations, Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability and NextGen California, along with more than 140 other groups, hundreds of residents and other stakeholders, worked tirelessly for years to pass the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed SB 200 this summer, providing about $1.4 billion over the next decade to help secure safe drinking water in communities and schools throughout the state. We applaud the governor for his leadership on this issue, and ask the State Water Resources Control Board (State Water Board) to take the next step to address our drinking water crisis: protect our source waters from more pollution.

The Central Valley Salinity Alternatives for Long-Term Sustainability (CV-SALTS) includes a plan to address nitrate pollution of groundwater, a growing concern in the Central Valley. A nitrate plan is necessary to address a potentially deadly chemical, and a resolution proposed by Water Board staff directs removal of some of the most troubling parts of CV SALTS. But, the fact remains that the plan falls short by authorizing decades of continued nitrate pollution.

The plan commits responsible parties to do three things: provide safe drinking water to communities impacted by nitrate contamination, reduce and ultimately end nitrate pollution, and eventually clean up groundwater basins. Unfortunately, despite the inherent urgency, the plan and accompanying resolution that the State Water Board is considering could allow pollution to continue for up to 45 years, and sets no enforceable timeline for restoration of aquifers.

The state Water Board must act much more quickly. The Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund is a great victory, yet continued nitrate pollution from industrial agriculture threatens to partially undermine this significant achievement. Meanwhile, there are rumblings in Sacramento that industrial dairies and agriculture intend to siphon off money from the fund to overcome their nitrate problem.

On Wednesday, Oct. 16, the state Water Board is expected to make a decision on CV SALTS. That decision must set an enforceable, aggressive, and unequivocal timeline for an end to pollution and for restoration of our most precious resource. The speed of nitrate control implementation must be commensurate with the urgency of the risk faced by communities and households facing polluted drinking water. The governor heard the voices of Central Valley families when he signed the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund. The state Water Board must now hear their voices again and take action on this issue.

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