By: Assemblyman Tyler Diep on February 22, 2019
Governor Newsom proudly declared in his State of the State address that we “need a fresh approach when it comes to meeting California’s massive water challenges.” I agree that there are serious water challenges in the state, especially when a significant number of Californians do not have access to safe and reliable drinking water. Some estimate that it’s over 1 million and mostly in the Central Valley, concentrated in poor and disadvantaged communities. As a state with the fifth largest economy, we owe it to those who do not have access to this fundamental necessity.
Not surprisingly, the Governor’s “fresh approach” was nothing close to fresh but the same old Sacramento dance: creating a new tax. He proclaimed that “It’s going to demand political will from each and every one of us [in the State Legislature]” suggesting that a new tax would solve this problem. The Governor is wrong, and I urge that he look beyond the financial elements and evaluate the root cause of why our fellow Californians do not have access to safe drinking water.
As all of us know, we pay for the water we use. But the water doesn’t just miraculously appear on its own when we turn on the tap. The cost of the water we pay includes the people, infrastructure, investments, and technology it takes to get it into our homes and businesses.
Just like any enterprise, there are economies of scale for water delivery. Whether you are served by a public or private water provider, the cost of each gallon of water depends on many factors. The total cost includes how many people the provider serves, how many gallons each consumer uses, among other things.
In November 2017, the State Water Resources Control Board identified 329 water systems throughout the state that were in noncompliance and failed to provide safe drinking water to those they serve. Of those water systems, 83 percent of them serve less than 1,000 people. This translates to over 60 percent of their revenue being used exclusively for overhead, resulting in a very inefficient service-delivery model and very high per-customer overhead. Water delivery is extremely complex and requires significant investments over time. Therefore, it requires larger economies of scale to ensure safe drinking water is delivered to every Californian. A UC Davis study revealed that 60 percent of these failed water systems were less than 500 feet away from a water system that can provide safe drinking water. This is a significant reason why those in the Central Valley do not have access to reliable water.
AB 2050 or the Small System Water Authority Act of 2018 authored by former Assemblywoman Anna Caballero would have consolidated these water systems. This bill would have authorized the creation of small system water authorities that would have powers to absorb, improve, and competently operate noncompliant public water systems. The bill gave the small water systems authority to issue bonds to pay its liabilities. If the issuance of bonds was left to voter approval it could have garnered more support. In the end, former Governor Brown vetoed this bill because he believed it did not provide “a stable funding source to pay for ongoing operations and maintenance costs.”
Let’s examine if there is a stable funding source to ameliorate this problem. In our state’s history, we have had over 16 water bonds go before the voters from 1960 to 2018. Only one failed. The most recently approved California Water Bond of 2018 (Proposition 3) authorized $8.877 billion in general obligation bonds for safe drinking water. In addition, Proposition 1 and Proposition 68 earmarked over $4 billion for disadvantaged communities facing water problems. On top of that, we have an unprecedented budget surplus. The Association of California Water Agencies and the California Municipal Utilities Association are sponsoring legislation to create a Safe Drinking Water Trust that would be funded during years where the state budget has a surplus. Isn’t this proof that there is enough money to fix this problem?
The Governor’s call for a new tax is not fresh at all. If this is his definition of fresh, then fresh is overrated. Before imposing another new tax on already heavily taxed Californians, as policy makers, don’t we owe it to them to come up with alternative solutions? Asking Californians to pay another tax and throwing more money at the problem is not a solution. Providing a subsidy to an already failing service-delivery model will not incentivize these systems to change but rather have them continue a failed path.
I am proud that my district is home to the world-renowned Groundwater Replenishment System, a joint partnership with the Orange County Sanitation District and the Orange County Water District, that recycles over 100 million gallons of wastewater per day. In the near future, this will increase to over 130 million gallons of wastewater per day. This is my definition of fresh, not a new tax.
Assemblyman Tyler Diep was elected in 2018 and represents the 72nd Assembly District.