This post initially appeared in the Feb. 8 Sacramento Report. Get the Sacramento Report delivered to your inbox.
In the past five years, California voters have approved over $10 billion in statewide bonds to fund water projects, some in areas could not otherwise afford to improve their own water systems.
Now, faced with perhaps several million Californians who still lack access to safe and affordable water, the Legislature looks increasingly likely to impose a statewide tax to fund more water projects.
In a legislative hearing last week, Wade Crowfoot, the new director of the state’s Natural Resources Agency, said Gov. Gavin Newsom wants a solution this year to this “crisis” this year.
Right now, some rural districts don’t have the right equipment to ensure water is safe and paying for that equipment would increase rates so much their residents couldn’t afford the water.
Unlike most of the bond money, money from a new “water tax” could be used for ongoing operations and repairs. Even communities that get a new water treatment plant thanks to bond money still lack the money to keep it running.
Crowfoot said the state could also push rural districts to merge with each other in an effort to create economies of scale.
Urban water districts, including many in the San Diego region, have opposed the tax because they might end up being responsible for collecting the new revenue – which could require more administrative overhead at hundreds of agencies across the state and also make them subject to ratepayer ire for higher bills. The tax would be about $1 per month and most proposals include exemptions for low-income ratepayers.
“There is legitimate risk that this could result in political backlash at the local level, with regional and local water agencies potentially losing the political support of their communities, even if such changes are mandated by new federal or state law,” Mark Watton, the general manager of the Otay Water District, wrote to the state.
Some state lawmakers seemed concern that the tax wouldn’t raise enough money right away to fix everybody’s problems.
“It’s like a competition of who’s got the dirtiest water will go first,” said Assemblyman Eduardo Garcia, a Riverside County Democrat.
Assemblyman Devon Mathis, a Republican from an area of the Central Valley where one community ran out of water, argued that instead of a new tax that could only fund projects over time, the state need to redirect a chunk of its existing budget to fund needed upgrades immediately.