The Water Authority and its 24 member agencies have an unyielding commitment to providing a safe and reliable water supply for 3.3 million people at a reasonable cost. For San Diego County, that results in a constant, drought-resilient supply of water that meets rigorous state and federal quality standards.
It’s not like that everywhere in California. Some rural, low-income communities face a different reality: their drinking water contains elevated levels of contaminants such as nitrates and arsenic. This public health issue and social justice challenge demands focused leadership by state officials to solve.
Unfortunately, legislation under consideration in Sacramento would magnify the very problems it was designed to address by imposing a statewide tax. The tax would add approximately $130 million a year to residential and commercial water bills. Additionally, it would add approximately $30 million in taxes on fertilizer and dairy products.
As a regional public water agency, we absolutely support the intent of the bill – which is to improve the quality of drinking water in disadvantaged communities – but its approach is counterproductive. The problems are real, but implementing a water tax as the funding source is wrong.
In fact, Senate Bill 623 calls this tax, a fee. Its goal is to improve water security for disadvantaged communities through a “Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fee.” Make no mistake: This is a tax, and taxing Californians for something as essential as water does not make sense. It will increase the cost of water, making it less affordable. It also will place undo upward pressure on food prices. Call it a lose-lose for low-income residents – and everyone else.
That’s not the only problem with this bill: Imposing a statewide tax on water would force local water agencies to collect taxes for Sacramento. If past habits are the precedent, state government won’t pay for this service, yet most local agencies are already stretched thin. So in the end, ratepayers face the double-whammy of paying higher taxes and paying water agencies to collect and distribute those funds.
Clearly, the adage about the camel’s nose getting under the tent applies here. California is rife with programs in search of funding – low-income water rate assistance, forestry health and watershed protection, to name a few. Advocates and agencies already are eyeing revenues from a potential water tax, so what begins as a modest increase for ratepayers could grow rapidly as more and more projects force their way into the “tent.”
A better approach is to use money from existing sources such as the state general fund, federal safe drinking water funds, the newly authorized state cap-and-trade program, and general obligation bond funds.
That would match the way the state pays for other programs and initiatives identified as statewide priorities, without taxing the very products and services that we all agree should be affordable and accessible to all Californians.
Mark Muir is board chair of the San Diego County Water Authority