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Where Might Funding For Safe Drinking Water Flow From?

Rebecca Plevin
Valley Public Radio

For the past 35 years, Sandra Garcia has picked grapes, plums and peppers on San Joaquin Valley farms. But when she returns to her home in the small, Tulare County community of Poplar, she’s reminded of agriculture’s impact on her drinking water.

She can’t drink it because it contains unhealthy levels of nitrates. And she can’t cook with it, because boiling water can concentrate the nitrate level. It’s a serious health issue for infants and pregnant women.

On a recent morning, Garcia flipped on the filter on her faucet. She uses the filtered water mainly when she’s washing dishes or cooking. She pays about $27 every couple months for the filter. On top of that, she pays about $50 a month for tap water, which she can’t use for much besides bathing or laundry. She also spends about $50 a week on bottled drinking water.

“When they send us the advisory that our water has pesticides, or nitrates, or has something else in it, time has already passed since they realized it, so we don’t know when we can drink the water, and when we can’t drink it, so we never drink the water,” Garcia said in Spanish. “We are always buying water.”

"We are always buying water" - Sandra Garcia

Garcia is among more than 250,000 people in the Tulare Lake Basin and the Salinas Valley who are at risk for nitrate contamination of their drinking water. That’s according to a UC Davis report that was submitted to the legislature last year. The report also found that agriculture fertilizers and animal waste applied to cropland were the source of an estimated 96 percent of nitrate pollution in groundwater in these areas.

In a February report to the legislature, the State Water Resource Control Board recommended several ways to address the issues associated with nitrate-contaminated groundwater.

The board’s chief recommendation was to create a new, reliable funding source to help design, build, operate and maintain safe drinking water systems for small, disadvantaged communities impacted by nitrate contamination, said John Borkovich, Groundwater Ambient Monitoring and Assessment program manager at the State Water Resource Control Board’s Division of Water Quality.

“That’s the critical need, that’s the number-one recommendation,” Borkovich said. “Ultimately, when you get through all of the different issues associated with nitrate contamination to groundwater, we felt that the number one issue was to address the issue associated with people there were drinking water that was not safe.”

In its report, the water board proposed three possible funding sources to support continuing, long-term costs to address safe drinking water issues in the south San Joaquin Valley and the Salinas Valley. One recommendation is to tack a fee on to certain food products, like cheese, purchased at the supermarket. It stems from the fact that nitrogen from animal facilities is a significant source of groundwater contamination.

The board also recommended a water use fee. It would apply to all public water rate users.

Finally, the board suggested a fee on nitrogen fertilizing materials. The idea is that the extra cost might be an incentive for growers to reduce nitrogen use. But, according to the report, it could increase costs for the state’s farmers and ranchers. There’s also a concern that while the cost of this option would most likely fall on existing farmers, current groundwater nitrate contamination is the result of past agricultural practices.

The UC Davis report found this option to be the most promising source of additional revenue.

“It’s fairly easy to be able to make that statement, but the realities of putting a fertilizer fee into place are a little bit different,” said Assemblymember Mark Stone, a Democrat from Monterey Bay.

Following the nitrate reports, Stone authored AB 467, which would create a reliable, stable funding source to provide long-term, safe drinking water infrastructure, as well as short-term solutions for communities impacted by nitrates.

Stone acknowledges the challenges of generating new funds, and doing so without over-burdening one industry or community. But, he says, a nitrogen fertilizer fee is one of several potential funding sources he’s discussing with growers, affected residents and advocates. He says it could be a component of a larger solution.

The bill Water Board cannot implement any of these recommended fees, because they require action from the state legislature. Stone’s bill is expected to be heard in the Assembly Appropriations Committee in May. 

"The fertilizer fee is definitely on the table, as is any other possible revenue source that we can get" - Assemblymember Mark Stone

“From my standpoint, the fertilizer fee is definitely on the table, as is any other possible revenue source that we can get,” Stone said. “I’m certainly very open to minimizing the burdens on any individual sector, but we desperately need to come up with the resources to address the problem.”

David Orth, general manager of the Kings River Conservation District, and the co-chair of Governor Brown’s Drinking Water Stakeholder Group, said Central Valley growers want to see the drinking water issues addressed in a fair and equitable way.

“I think the difficulty here with respect to a nitrogen use fee, for example, is that many of today’s farmers have made such significant changes and improvements in the way they irrigate and the way they utilize their nitrogen,” Orth said. “To try to make today’s farmers pay for issues that he inherited when he took that farm over, are inequitable.”

The goal, he said, should be to ensure that various industries and communities are contributing to the solution.

“We have to find a balance where ag is investing, where the public is investing, where the customers who receive this water continue to pay just like you and I do for drinking water – I think a balanced portfolio of revenues is the way we solve this problem,” he said.

Back in Poplar, Sandra Garcia does not mince words as she describes where she believes the funding for short-term and long-term drinking water solutions should flow from. She’s heard about the water board’s recommendations, and has even testified about related legislation in Sacramento.

From her perspective, the Valley’s agriculture community should be part of the solution.

“If they are impacting the water, then they should contribute something so the water can be cleaned up,” she said. “They should do something to support us, so we can have good water.”

Despite their positions on where the money should come from, everyone seems to agree on the overarching goal: That all Valley residents soon have access to safe, clean drinking water.

Rebecca Plevin was a reporter for Valley Public Radio from 2013-2014. Before joining the station, she was the community health reporter for Vida en el Valle, the McClatchy Company's bilingual newspaper in California's San Joaquin Valley. She earned the George F. Gruner Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism and the McClatchy President's Award for her work at Vida, as well as honors from the National Association of Hispanic Publications and the California Newspaper Publishers Association. Plevin grew up in the Washington, D.C. area and is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. She is also a fluent Spanish speaker, a certified yoga teacher, and an avid rock-climber.
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