California governor pushes for fee to clean up tainted water

Gov. Gavin Newsom wants to charge California water customers up to $10 per month to help clean up contaminated water in low-income and rural areas, but he will face resistance from some legislative Democrats hesitant to impose new taxes.

The Democratic governor says up to 1 million California residents have some type of contaminated or unclean water coming through their taps that can cause health issues. He has called it "a moral disgrace and a medical emergency."

"The fact that in California, in the fifth-largest economy, we have people who cannot drink their water, people who can't even bathe in their water, there's something absolutely wrong," Democratic Assemblywoman Eloise Reyes said Wednesday during a hearing on Newsom's plan.

The fee on water customers would affect households and businesses — an idea that lawmakers killed last session. Newsom wants to combine it with fees on animal farmers, dairies and fertilizer sellers to raise about $140 million per year.

A competing proposal by Democratic Sen. Anna Caballero would use money from the state's multibillion-dollar surplus to create a trust fund to pay for water improvements.

Newsom's plan could be difficult to pass because tax and fee increases require support from two-thirds of lawmakers.

Democrats hold 75 percent of the legislative seats, but some who represent moderate or agricultural districts may balk at the proposal, particularly after voters recalled a Democratic senator last year after he voted to raise the gas tax. Caballero, for example, represents an agricultural district previously held by a Republican.

There was broad agreement at Wednesday's hearing that the lack of access to clean water for so many is a stain on the state, but lawmakers acknowledged a political solution has been elusive.

"I would be foolish, based on the history of this issue, to make promises about where we're going to end up at the end of this cycle," said Assemblyman Richard Bloom, chairman of the budget subcommittee. "But I will commit to doing my damnedest to bring this to a conclusion."

Newsom's plan starting next year would charge water customers from 95 cents to $10 a month, based on the size of their water meter, with exceptions for people in poverty.

Animal farmers, dairies and fertilizer producers and handlers also would pay a fee because their operations contribute to nitrate in groundwater.

The money raised would help public water systems, including those that serve schools, treat contaminated water, improve long-term maintenance and test the water quality of domestic wells.

Dozens of residents from the Central Valley testified in support of the fee, saying it would be a small price to pay to ensure access to water that wouldn't make them sick.

"We are the poorest families, and we are willing to pay the tax because we spend a lot more money than the tax buying water bottles for our families," said Lucy Hernandez, a resident of Tulare County in the Central Valley.

Water districts broadly oppose the user tax, instead calling on lawmakers to pass Caballero's plan. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office said most people who would pay the fee would not directly benefit from it.

"We don't think it makes sense to tax a resource that is essential to living," said Cindy Tuck of the Association of California Water Agencies.