As State Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel, puts it, “We’re at a nervous point.” And surrounding that nervous point, there’s a whole lot of water.
By the State Water Resources Control Board’s estimates, more than a million Californians don’t have safe drinking water flowing through the pipes into their homes. In Monterey County alone, more than 70 water systems have been cited for contamination. In some North County homes, naturally occurring arsenic can be found in unacceptably high levels; in some areas of South County, fertilizer runoff has contaminated systems with nitrates, rendering the water dangerously undrinkable.
It’s not this dirty-water reality that has Monning at the nervous point; it’s the promise of a solution looming on the horizon. As Gov. Gavin Newsom prepares to send his revised $213 billion budget to the legislature for approval, a trailer bill proposes that the legislature appropriate $150 million a year to a Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund, proposed in Monning’s same-named Senate Bill 200. The money would become available if SB 200, which doesn’t include a funding mechanism, becomes law.
The nervousness also comes because it’s now up to “the Big Three,” as Monning refers to Newsom, Senate President Pro Tem Toni Atkins, D-San Diego and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood, to negotiate the details of Newsom’s budget before it goes to the legislature on June 15.
“The good news is there’s still a high level of interest and enthusiasm from the governor, the speaker and the pro tem to get this done in this budget cycle,” Monning says, “but how it’s going to land I can’t give you any forecast because it will be the subject of negotiation among the big three.”
SB 200 passed out of the Senate 37-1, and while it lacks the funding mechanism, it sets up the infrastructure necessary under the State Water Board, and gives the state treasury the means to review applications and distribute funds. The $150 million annual funding would be a recurring budget allocation.
“The common denominator is poverty and marginalized communities that can’t pay for cleaning their water or to patch into existing clean water systems,” Monning says. Bond money can’t be used for operations or maintenance, and SB 200 creates a fund to support both of those things.
“There’s a community in the Central Valley that built a facility to clean arsenic out of the water, but the machine is turned off because they can’t afford the maintenance,” Monning says. “This bill doesn’t prohibit the use of funds for capital improvements, and it can be used to patch a smaller system into a larger system and, in emergencies, it can be used to pay for bottled water.”
In Salinas on May 24, activists and elected officials including Supervisor Luis Alejo gathered outside the county administration building along with representatives of the Community Water Center to advocate for the clean water fund.
“We’re seeing a broad coalition behind this, with ag at the table supporting it along with traditional activist groups and immigrants rights groups and environmental justice groups together,” Alejo says. “We’re coming much closer to building consensus than before.”