Turning on the tap and getting clean drinking water is something that most of us take for granted. In larger cities with well-funded utility districts, tap water arrives on demand, around the clock and with a promise of safety. Most city and suburban water is treated to the highest quality standards before delivery to our homes and families. Life is far more complicated for those who live in rural agricultural communities across California. Those residents—their numbers exceed 1 million—often can’t drink the water from their faucets.

Access to safe drinking water for all is something that most Californians support.  A poll commissioned by the Water Foundation found that 4 out of 5 Californians were concerned about the quality of water they were drinking.  Sixty-nine percent indicated that they were willing to pay a fee of up to a dollar on their water utility bills.

Last year, the legislature had an opportunity to deliver a solution for communities across the state whose water supply is compromised by unsafe levels of artificial and naturally occurring contaminants like nitrates and arsenic. Senate Bill 623 by Senator Bill Monning would have created a reliable funding source for water treatment projects, particularly in rural communities that do not have the economic base to sustain these projects.

But SB 623 failed to advance, when in the wake of the “gas tax” fallout, which resulted in the recall of Los Angeles area Senator Josh Newman, opponents labeled the bill as a “water tax” and effectively squashed the political will necessary to address drinking water for our rural schools and communities.

But the tides may be turning. Senator Monning and Assembly members Richard Bloom and Eduardo Garcia are again advancing legislation to provide operation and maintenance funding. Our newly elected Governor Newsom has made it his administration’s priority to deliver a solution. 

Once again, however, the opponents are out in force.  You have probably seen editorials and news reports that the Governor wants to add $10 to your monthly water bill.  These reports are intentionally misleading and unfortunate.

Similar to last year’s SB 623, the Governor has proposed a 95-cent fee per month for California residents who earn above a certain income level. Only those with the larger water meters, like commercial or industrial hookups, would pay up to $10 per month. An additional fee on fertilizer purchases and animal operations would generate an additional $30 million for a total of $140 million per year. These funds would be used to maintain and operate clean drinking water system for which other current funding sources are restricted from covering.

It’s easy to look the other way if this issue doesn’t affect you personally.  Some have blamed farmers, the dairyman, or the industrial facilities for the problem. Arguments are made that the “polluters” should pay. If it were that simple, I’m certain that in this state the problem would have been fixed a long time ago. Groundwater contamination is the result of multiple sources both natural and artificial. In many areas the contamination we see today entered the system decades ago and are not the result of current activities. Some of the most widespread concerns come from arsenic, which is a naturally occurring mineral. Which “polluter” is responsible for arsenic?

The reality is that every single one of us as consumers of water are so-called “polluters”.  We all use water, discharge contaminants directly or indirectly through the products we use or consume, and affect the quality of drinking water for someone else.

I’m not usually a proponent of additional taxes or fees, but I also understand that in every service or product I pay for there are added costs for things beyond the service or product I’m receiving.

When you buy a cup of coffee donations are made to charities or causes to benefit society.  Energy and phone utility customers are charged fees to cover costs to provide services to households who are unable to afford them. These fees rise regularly to support the growing costs and most of us don’t even notice.

The proposed water fee is no different, except that it has been labeled as a “tax” and opposed by the urban water utilities that don’t want the precedent of having to collect and transmit the fee on behalf of their customers. They are okay with the general public funding the solution if they are not involved in the transaction. They have supported alternative methods for all of us to pay, all of which have had no possibility of being signed into law.

For too long, the needs of our rural communities have been put on the back burner in favor of the needs of our larger population centers. It is widely known that agriculture is the lifeblood of our rural communities, but in reality, these communities are the lifeblood of agriculture.

This is why the Board of California Citrus Mutual and other leading agricultural organizations support what we see as the most likely solution. It may not be perfect, but nothing ever is. We can and should address this inequity by supporting the most promising solution available today. That proposal will cost most of who can afford it, less than three premium lattes a year. It’s time for action, our rural communities have suffered long enough.