California legislative leaders agreed Sunday to spend $130 million a year to improve water systems in communities where people can't drink from their taps, something Democratic leaders say amounts to a crisis in one of the nation's wealthiest states.
To pay for it, the state would tap a fund dedicated to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, a move that alarmed some environmental activists who say its set up an unfair choice between clean air and water.
"What kind of choice is that?" said Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California. "People shouldn't have to choose between clean water and clean air."
The plan is part of the state's $213 billion budget and is a compromise between legislative leaders and new Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom. Newsom had originally proposed a 95-cent tax on most residential water bills to pay for the fund. But lawmakers rejected that proposal, fearing political consequences of creating a new tax in a year when officials estimate the state will have a $21.5 billion surplus.
Instead, legislative leaders on Sunday agreed to take the money from the state's Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund. Through its cap and trade program, California requires its big polluters, like oil refineries and farms, to buy credits that let them pollute.
Becky Quintana is glad lawmakers found a way to fund water improvements, regardless of where the money is coming from. She lives in Seville, a town of less than 500 people in California's Central Valley where the local elementary school relies on a grant to bring in bottled water for the students. Some days, she said, the school has to cancel classes because they can't flush the toilets.
"People chose water over air, right? I mean I would," Quintana said Monday at the state Capitol in Sacramento, joining other activists in light blue "Thirsty for Justice" T-shirts as they held a rally to pressure lawmakers into approving the funding. "We need the money. We need water."
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To pay for the water improvements, budget writers are taking money away from the agricultural industry, which uses it for activities such as upgrading diesel engines and reducing methane pollution. Lawmakers voted to cut that funding from $284 to $127 million.
About $100 million of that would go to a new clean drinking water fund, according to a document provided by the state Assembly. Another $30 million would come from the state's general fund.
The money would not build things, but it would help some distressed public water systems with their operating costs. The goal is to avoid situations like 2007, when officials in the rural Central Valley community of Lanare had to shut down a new water treatment plant because they could not afford to run it.
California's cap-and-trade program is the backbone of the state's efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The state has already achieved its goal of reducing emissions to 1990 levels and is attempting to go 40% below that level by 2030. The program has generated more than $9.5 billion since its inception, according to a 2019 annual report.
The state uses money from the program to pay for projects aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions or improving the environment and public health. Some of the money, for example, goes to the high-speed rail project that would run electric trains, ideally reducing transportation emissions. California law also requires 35% of the proceeds be spent on low-income and other disadvantaged communities.
Republican Sen. John Moorlach from Costa Mesa was skeptical about the connection between clean drinking water and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
But Newsom's administration said when communities with unsafe drinking water have to bring in lots of bottled water, it clogs the roads with big trucks that pollute the air.
Sen. Bill Monning, a Democrat from Carmel who authored a bill to direct how the money would be spent, said greenhouse gas emissions have caused climate change, which has caused an increase of naturally occurring contaminants in drinking water like arsenic and lead.
"It's directly connected," he said. "Without climate change, without greenhouse gas emissions, you don't have this immediate public health crisis."
But many drinking water problems are connected with pollution from the state's massive agricultural industry, whose heavy use of fertilizers and other chemicals have seeped into the drinking water of nearby communities. That's why lawmakers have tentatively agreed to take most of the money from the agriculture industry's portion of the greenhouse gas fund.
Emily Rooney, president of the Agricultural Council of California, called it "a creative solution for the drinking water crisis."
"Obviously we want to protect our ag programs in the greenhouse gas reduction fund, but this is also a serious commitment on behalf of the governor to resolve a problem that definitely needs to be addressed," she said. "I'm not going to get in the way of that."