By Steve Fleischli, Senior Director, Water Initiatives, Healthy People & Thriving Communities program, Natural Resources Defense Council

June 18, 2019

California has a drinking water problem. A million people in the state lack consistent access to safe drinking water. Governor Newsom has called it a disgrace. So have many others. Because it is.
For years, frontline groups like Community Water Center and the Leadership Counsel for Justice & Accountability, along with Clean Water Action, have advocated for a specific fund for clean drinking water, especially to help low-income communities in need. Now, these groups have led a campaign that just successfully secured, through the state budget process, more than a billion dollars to help fix the problem.
For all people is a complicated issue, and nowhere more so than in California. There are many competing interests and many hard questions that have plagued the debate for years.  We all know what needs to be done, but the question that has prevented taking needed action was who will pay for it? Farmworkers who are needed to grow our food but often don’t make a livable wage? Or should corporate agriculture have to pay its fair share to ensure communities impacted by agricultural pollution actually get clean water? What about naturally occurring contaminants, like arsenic, that plague many low income and farmworker communities?
And how much should urban water users pay to clean up contamination in the Central Valley? Or in urban areas that still lack clean water? (Yes, there are plenty of those, too.)
Meanwhile, communities across the state continue to suffer.
The fact is, we are all in this together, and we all should help solve California’s drinking water crisis.
So, it is a relief to see the legislature (lead by Senate pro Tem Atkins and Assembly Speaker Rendon) and the Governor find some common ground in solving this enormous problem. How to pay for it? Well, they chose to rely mostly on funds from the state’s cap and trade program, known as the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund. In all, the state is committing $130 million a year for 10 years, mostly from the climate fund, to combat the state’s drinking water problem.
We are pleased to see that those Californians who are most in need will now get critical additional funding for clean drinking water. California’s climate program, and its price on carbon, will continue to grow as carbon emission limits decline, providing opportunities to fund projects that help communities. However, in order to adequately meet our long-term drinking water challenges, California should continue to increase overall, dedicated funding for drinking water without having to rely so heavily on climate revenues.
Sometimes it is important not to sacrifice the good for the perfect. The result here is good. Good for California. And, most importantly, good for people who lack clean drinking water. It is not perfect.  A safe climate and clean water are basic human rights. If we are going to protect our communities from the ravages of climate change as well as ensure clean drinking water for all, reliable funding is needed on all fronts.
Is California prepared to dedicate the full resources necessary to meet the challenges that climate change and drinking water present? This year’s State Budget is a promising starting point.  A long-term solution is the next step and it must clearly protect both of these rights.
One thing that is clear today is that groups like Community Water Center, the Leadership Counsel, and Clean Water Action – and the thousands of community members across the state that spoke out for years on this issue – all deserve praise for their incredible perseverance in trying to make real the right to safe, sufficient and affordable drinking water.
Now, the legislature and our state agencies can help make sure this money goes to projects that make the biggest difference for communities in need. To do so, they can ensure that frontline groups have a strong voice in how these funds are spent. They should prioritize the use of this funding to assist disadvantaged communities and low-income households. The creation of an environmental justice advisory committee to help conduct public review and assessment of the fund is also needed. Only then can the voices of those most impacted by this shameful situation truly be heard in decisions that should – if done properly and in a sustained fashion – provide clean drinking water for all Californians.
This blog post oringally appeared on the NRDC site on June 14, 2019.