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California Looks To Clean Air Funds To Pay For Clean Drinking Water

Ezra David Romero / Capital Public Radio

More than a million Californians don't have access to clean drinking water.

Ezra David Romero / Capital Public Radio

Updated 4 p.m. Thursday

Erica Fernandez Zamora moved to the Central Valley after graduating from Stanford. She relies on bottled water because her well near the city of Visalia is contaminated.

“With bacteria it will be a simple solution just to boil the water, but for nitrates when you boil the water the contaminant actually concentrates more,” Fernandez Zamora said.

It’s this kind of pollution that water advocates and Californians have been fighting to fix since at least 2012 when then-Gov. Jerry Brown declared every Californian has the right “to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking, and sanitary purposes.”

“These communities live in places where they haven’t had safe water for decades,” said Jonathon Nelson, policy director for the Community Water Center.

Overall, more than a million Californians don't have access to clean drinking water. But advocates are hoping that could change with a major increase in state funding coming in the next budget.

This weekend state lawmakers decided to address water contamination by taking $130 million yearly out of the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund as part of budget talks. David Clegern, with a spokesman for the California Air Resources Board, explains the fund as a "repository for the cap-and-trade auction proceeds."

“The fact that it’s 2019 and we are on the verge of securing every human’s right to water is both long overdue and is a historic moment,” Nelson said.

All this pollution impacts places like the Central Valley town of Lanare where an arsenic treatment plant sits dormant.

"What's left is a symbolic reminder of what could provide the community with safe drinking water,” said Veronica Garibay with the Leadership Counsel in Fresno, which advocates for communities dealing with water contamination.

"The fund will help make sure what happened in Lanare doesn't happen again,” Garibay said.

Lawmakers decided not to go with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plan to add a 95-cent tax on residential water bills, which has been pitched several times in recent history.

Garibay says community members being present in Sacramento helped show legislators how real the issue remains.

"Those ganas — that resiliency — that's what's led to meeting with our representatives on an ongoing and regular basis to make sure this was the number one priority,” Garibay said.

Not all environmental groups are sold on the idea. "You're making sure that people who are already suffering from lack of clean water are likely going to be suffering from more air pollution than necessary,” said Kathryn Phillips with Sierra Club California.

But Riverside Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia disagrees. "I don't believe that we're pitting air and water against each other. There are tremendous amounts of resources that are coming to address those issues collectively."

The proposed solution still needs final approval by the Legislature. The budget vote could happen as early as Thursday.   

Correction: A previous version of this story inaccurately described the fund where the money would come from.  

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