The facts about access to clean and safe water in California never cease to be shocking. Statewide, 372 water systems – serving nearly 1 million people – are out of compliance with state standards on contamination levels or water treatment. There are some 70 water systems in Monterey County alone where the water is contaminated with naturally occurring chemicals like arsenic, or from nitrogen due to fertilizer in agricultural runoff.

It’s not that we can’t fix these problems – it’s that they’re expensive, and there’s been tense political disagreement about who should pay.

The California state budget for the fiscal year that begins on July 1 might finally have a solution with the creation of the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund. Over 10 years, it would funnel $1.4 billion to the fund for clean water solutions.

(That’s just a sliver of the $215 billion state budget, but for comparison’s sake, consider that Google made headlines on June 18 when CEO Sundar Pichai announced that the company would invest $1 billion in San Francisco Bay Area housing.)

The budget has been approved by the California Legislature, but still needs Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature to pass. It also still needs trailer bills that authorize some of the spending – including the drinking water fund.

State Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel, authored the Safe Drinking Water Act, SB 200. That bill passed in the State Senate, then moved over to the Assembly where it hasn’t yet gone to hearings. That would be a legislative way to tackle the safe drinking water issue, but Monning is optimistic – “100-percent confident,” in fact – that the language of SB 200 will be cribbed for the budget trailer bill, with hearings likely starting on June 24. (If the Safe and Affordale Drinking Water Fund passes with the budget, then SB 200 – the inspiration for it – effectively becomes moot.)

“It’s a historic agreement,” Monning says.

Part of the agreement – and past tension – arises from who will pay for that $1.4 billion. The solution calls for some general fund expenditures, but mostly dips into the state’s cap-and-trade fund, paid for by polluters and meant to be spent addressing greenhouse gas emissions. Some environmental groups have raised concerns about whether dipping into climate change money to fix a water supply problem is appropriate, but Monning sees it as part of a bigger picture: “There is a connection between drought caused by climate change and water contamination,” he says. “In my view, this is a first-aid and emergency response to victims who don’t have access to safe drinking water.”

It’s a solution that works for the Association of California Water Agencies, which vehemently opposed a tax, one previous proposal. And it’s a solution that works for agriculture companies, which don’t have to pay into the fund – but also don’t get any special protections as called for in drafts in previous years.

Steve Shimek, CEO of The Otter Project, opposed earlier versions that provided some regulatory protections for the agriculture industry, and supports the current funding mechanism.

“I’m wildly supportive,” he says. “And I do think there is some justification for using [the cap-and-trade] fund.

“In general, what this is about is providing clean water, which is a human right. Even though I’m a wacko enviro, I do think clean drinking water is a human right, and we should be fulfilling that obligation. It’s the responsibility of all Californians to help with that.”

Assuming the trailer language passes and Newsom signs the budget, here’s some of what the Safe Drinking Water Fund will likely pay for: water treatment systems, new wells, hookups for contaminated communities to tap into existing safe water systems – basic infrastructure, in short.

Whenever Monning scores a victory, no matter how big or small, he has a habit of telling media and supporters, “Step by step.”

He terms out in Sacramento next year, and securing the drinking water fund marks a major milestone in a long career. “It’s the biggest allocation I’ve ever been a part of,” he says, then adds his usual motto: “Step by step.” This step is a big one.

Sara Rubin loves long public meetings, red pens and reading (on newsprint). She has been editor of the Monterey County Weekly since 2016, and has been on staff since 2010.

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