Local water officials object to proposed state ‘water tax’

Water officials in San Diego County have come out against a proposed state law that would impose a new monthly fee on all residential and commercial water users in California, to pay for programs that provide access to clean and safe drinking water in communities where water sources are contaminated.

Opponents of the legislation have called the proposed fee a “water tax,” while supporters said it is “vitally needed” to deal with a state health crisis.

At its meeting in August, the board of the Santa Fe Irrigation District voted to oppose the proposed law, Senate Bill 623, authored by Sen. Bill Monning (D-Carmel), unless it is amended to remove the proposed fee on water users. Earlier this summer, the board of the San Diego County Water Authority, the region’s water wholesaler, took a similar position.

The Santa Fe district doesn’t oppose the goal of providing clean drinking water to communities that lack it, said spokeswoman Jessica Parks, but the district does object to the imposition of a new state fee on water customers.

“This would be another charge we would have to put on the customer,” said Parks. “I think our customers have been vocal about the amount they already pay on their bills. To add more fees and taxes will only harm our customers.”

In a recently published op-ed piece, Water Authority chairman Mark Muir wrote that money for the “Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund” should instead come from existing sources such as the state general fund, federal safe drinking water funds, the newly authorized state cap-and-trade program or general obligation bonds.

SB 623 calls for fees ranging from 95 cents per month to $10 per month for residential and commercial water customers, depending on the size of their water meter. The money would be collected by local water agencies such as Santa Fe Irrigation District.

Glenn Farrel, government relations manager with the County Water Authority, lauded the bill’s intentions and said the quarrel is with the funding mechanism.

“We don’t at all dispute the intent of the bill,” Farrel said. “We believe there’s a need. It’s just the source of funding in this bill, the water tax, that’s the crux of our opposition.”

The proposed fee would raise an estimated $100 million to $130 million per year, with an additional $30 million coming from fees on the dairy and fertilizer industries.

Supporters of the bill said 300 communities across the state, home to as many as 1 million Californians, lack access to clean and safe drinking water.

“We think this is an incredible opportunity to advance human rights for all Californians,” said Jenny Rempel, director of education and engagement with the Community Water Center, a nonprofit based in Visalia. “SB 623 is vitally needed.”

Drinking water in communities across the state is contaminated with arsenic, nitrates and other toxins, said Rempel, although California’s Central Valley is disproportionately affected.

“This is a health crisis,” Rempel said. “This is a statewide problem that needs a statewide solution.”

According to the language in SB 623 as currently drafted, money from the fund would be used for grants, loans, contracts or services for projects related to the provision of safe and affordable drinking water.

The bill would also provide emergency water supplies and money for operation and maintenance of water treatment facilities, Rempel said.

But Farrel said his agency is concerned the relatively modest water fee might be only the start. In the future, he said, the water fund could be seen as a source of money for additional purposes, and the fees increased.

The old adage about the camel’s nose under the tent is appropriate, Farrel said. “This (water fee) is the camel’s nose. We don’t want the rest of the camel under the tent.”

The bill is opposed in its present form by the Association of California Water Agencies, and supported by a broad coalition of groups, Rempel said.

Because SB 623 includes a new fee on California residents and businesses, it must be passed by a two-thirds vote in the Legislature. The bill was approved by the state Senate, and is now being considered by the Assembly Appropriations Committee. The bill would have to be approved by both houses of the Legislature by Sept.15 to become law during the Legislature’s 2017 session, officials said. It would also need the signature of Gov. Jerry Brown.

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