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California Lawmakers Eye Voluntary Tax To Pay For Central Valley Water Contamination

joeshlabotnik / Flickr

joeshlabotnik / Flickr

California lawmakers are considering whether to approve a voluntary tax on water customers across the state.

Revenue from the tax would be use to pay for cleaning up contaminated water in rural and low-income communities in the Central Valley.

Supporters of Senate Bill 845 contend the tax is necessary to keep safe the one million Californians exposed each year to contaminated drinking water.

“This is a hidden but real public health crisis right here in our state,” said Jonathan Nelson, policy director at the Community Water Center, a nonprofit that advocates for clean water. “For years, the state water board as well as drinking water advocates have been calling for a new sustainable source of funding.”

Water customers could opt out of the charge. An earlier proposal would have made the tax mandatory.

David Wolfe, legislative director for the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, said California has plenty of money to pay for the estimated $150 million clean-up.

“There are all sorts of existing revenues out there,” he said. “The general fund has an $8 billion surplus. Money therein can certainly be used to provide clean water. Cap-and-trade [revenue] can be used to provide clean water.”

Wolfe added that voter-approved water bonds, such as Proposition 1 passed in 2014 and Proposition 68 passed in June, can also be used.

But the state’s general fund and bond money aren’t reliable enough to address what’s become a chronic problem, said Veronica Garibay, co-director of the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability.

Garibay said bond funds can pay for water contamination facilities, but can’t be used to operate and maintain them. She said one such facility opened in a Central Valley town recently only to close months later due to a lack of money to keep it running.

“California has known about this problem a long time and has chosen not to address it,” she said.

A group that represents water districts across the state, the Association of California Water Agencies, is opposed to the tax.

Cindy Tuck, the association’s deputy executive director for government relations, said it will be costly and cumbersome for water districts to collect a tax for the state. She said her group recommends creating a check box on state tax forms for Californians to voluntarily pay for the clean-up.

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