Influencers Opinion

All Californians should have safe, clean water. But how do we make it happen?

Note to readers: Each week through November 2019, a selection of our 101 California Influencers answers a question that is critical to California’s future. Topics include education, healthcare, environment, housing and economic growth.

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When there are 1 million Californians without access to clean drinking water, doing the right thing shouldn’t be complicated.

“Few California urbanites grasp the intolerable, third-world conditions that nearly a million of their fellow Californians live in when it comes to accessing safe drinking water,” said Michael Mantell, president of the Resources Legacy Fund. “That residents of a state with the fifth largest economy on the planet lack that access is nothing short of scandalous.”

Lea Ann Tratten, a partner at TrattenPrice Consulting, described the Californians who suffer most without access to clean water and reiterated the urgency for action.

“The heaviest burden of the toxic taps crisis has fallen on our most marginalized communities, communities of color and people with low-incomes,” Tratten said. “Californians at risk from cancer, heart disease, infertility and other health conditions from their drinking water don’t have more time to wait for the perfect political solution.”

When Gov. Gavin Newsom called for constructing and maintaining delivery systems to get water to at-risk communities in his State of the State address, he received widespread support. But the fight over funding for the project got divisive – and fast.

“The right way to fund water cleanup would be to require the polluters to pay. But getting that kind of tax would have required a two-thirds legislative vote and there hasn’t been the political will in the legislature to do that,” said Sierra Club California Director Kathryn Phillips, alluding to the lack of support for Newsom’s original proposal to pay for the clean water plan with a tax on commercial, residential and agricultural users.

Phillips was one of several California Influencers who opposed Newsom’s revised proposal to pay for the clean water plan with more than $100 million from the state’s greenhouse gas reduction credits this year (and additional money for the next decade) rather than the general fund.

“Avoiding a new water tax is news we can all celebrate. But I’m not sure tapping into the cap-and-trade pot was the right move,” said Assemblyman James Gallagher (R-Yuba City). “I am concerned that someday soon cap-and-trade funds won’t be readily available to address and fund programs that actually reduce carbon emissions like reducing fuel in our forests and helping farmers and manufacturers upgrade/retrofit equipment.”

Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association, also warned the funding shift could lead to greater redirection of greenhouse gas reduction money in the future.

“As worthy as clean water initiatives are, we fear diverting (greenhouse gas) funds for them may open the door to funding other non-climate projects, to the detriment of the overall cap-and-trade program,” Reheis-Boyd said. “It’s critical that lawmakers find a more appropriate source of funds to ensure clean water for all Californians.”

Former state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles) opposed the use of money earmarked for climate change programs in the future, but acknowledged the political realities behind this year’s decision.

“While I believe our cap-and-trade dollars should be solely committed to reducing greenhouse gases – this is a public health emergency, not the time to bicker over funding mechanisms,” de Leon said. “Going forward, the legislature should double down on paying for clean water through the state’s general or rainy day fun.”

Rob Stutzman, former senior adviser to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, predicted political fallout from redirecting the greenhouse gas funding.

“To be clear, they have broken faith with Californians. We were all told the revenue from cap and trade… would be used for related climate change and air quality issues,” Stutzman said. “Once again they’ve proven why many voters are cynical about politicians.”

Others point to the link between the state’s clean water and climate change challenges.

“Warmer temperatures and prolonged drought have devastated the Sierra snowpack, which has historically been the source of most of the state’s fresh drinking water. (This makes) it easier for dangerous elements such as arsenic to contaminate the supply,” said state Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica). “The state must take steps to adapt to the changing climate, and if we do it right, these actions will improve the resiliency and cleanliness of drinking water systems.”

Brent Hastey, president of the Association of California Water Agencies, also praised Newsom’s plan, and stressed the importance of additional funding to meet operation and maintenance costs for water treatment.

“While a vast majority of Californians has access to safe drinking water, the lack of access anywhere in the state is a public health issue that can now be addressed thanks to this historic action,” he said.

Dan Schnur, a veteran analyst and longtime participant in California politics, is director of the California Influencers series for McClatchy.
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