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Brown signs slate of clean drinking water bills

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From arsenic to E. coli bacteria, contaminants flow from the water taps of hundreds of communities across the state. But seven bills signed into law Friday by Gov. Jerry Brown seek to improve access to clean drinking water in California, particularly for residents in rural and disadvantaged communities. 

“Clean drinking water is a basic human right,” Brown said in a statement. “The bills I have signed today will help ensure that every Californian has access to clean and safe sources of water.”

According to clean-water advocates, the legislation addresses a longstanding need. A study [PDF] by the Pacific Institute found that between 2005 and 2008, 1.3 million residents in the San Joaquin Valley had nitrate-polluted water coming from their faucets. Nitrates can cause death in vulnerable populations such as babies, and they also have been associated with cancer. Surveys by California Rural Legal Assistance and the Community Water Center in Visalia also found that low-income Californians who have access only to polluted water spend between 4 and 10 percent of their household income on bottled water for cooking and drinking.

“The legislation is extremely important because it’s a step forward in realizing that really disadvantaged communities don’t have access to clean water,” said Esmeralda Soria of the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, which lobbied for four of the bills. “They have been bathing, cooking and drinking contaminated water or buying expensive bottled water. These are small steps toward these communities having more access to funding that will in the long term give them access to cleaner water. These communities see that there’s hope in the near future of having clean water.”

The bills range from translating water contamination notices to removing logistical barriers to funding water infrastructure improvements.

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The bills signed into law are: 

  • AB 54: Allows water agencies to begin construction on ailing systems as soon as an application for state funding is accepted, rather than waiting several months or more for the money to be received. The legislation also would create new assistance and increase transparency of small, community-run mutual water agencies by providing training to board members. It also would require them to provide basic information to regional agencies about their operations.
  • AB 938: Requires drinking water alerts to be translated when 10 percent or more of water district customers speak a second language.
  • AB 983: Makes it possible for “severely disadvantaged communities” to obtain 100 percent grant funding for water infrastructure improvement projects. Currently, these communities can qualify only for up to 80 percent in grants and must take out the remaining 20 percent in loans that residents may have difficulty repaying.
  • AB 1221: Allows state-recognized tribes and nonprofit organizations (such as mutual water agencies) access to the state’s Cleanup and Abatement Account to pay for pollution mediation. Although these organizations pay into the account in the form of pollution fines, they do not currently qualify for cleanup money.
  • SB 244: Requires cities and counties to consider the infrastructure needs – including clean drinking water access – of disadvantaged and unincorporated communities in urban planning efforts, including general plan updates.
  • AB 1194: Makes adjustments to and clarifies drinking water laws to ensure that state public health laws conform with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. For example, the California Department of Public Health now will interpret laws involving human consumption of water to include cooking and food preparation. Failure to comply with national drinking water statutes could have resulted in a loss of about $130 million in federal funds.
  • AB 1292: Authorizes the issuance of revenue bonds, which will be deposited into the Safe Drinking Water State Revolving Fund so the state can satisfy federal matching requirements under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

In combination, the package of legislation will be a boon to public health, advocates and legislators say.

Assemblyman Jose Solorio, D-Anaheim, introduced legislation that would improve water quality served by small community-run water districts after learning that a 90-family community in his district was relying on a deteriorating system with unhealthy levels of nitrates.

“Santa Ana is a modern, urban city in Orange County, one of the wealthiest in the country, and we always thought everyone received water from the city, but unbeknownst to me, there was a problem with a mutual water district,” he said. “I was hearing from educators that the water was so bad that some kids weren’t brushing their teeth and some were not attending school because they didn’t want to take baths, the fear was so great.”

Susana De Anda of the Visalia-based Community Water Center said the legislation signed into law – such as AB 938, which requires translation of water pollution warnings – will have a significant impact on the residents with whom she works. In Tulare County, for example, a Spanish-speaking resident named Guadalupe Nunez received a number of notices telling her not to drink the water, De Anda said. But because she couldn’t read them, she saved them in a folder and continued consuming what came from the tap. She learned of the health risks only when she brought the notices to a community meeting where someone translated them for her.

“This is a great day for water rights advocates,” De Anda said. “Every Californian is closer to the human right to safe drinking water. The bills are tangible examples of how we’re moving in the right direction.”

The legislation primarily will involve changes to the way the California Department of Public Health and the State Water Resources Control Board do business. Both agencies acknowledge that the new laws will improve water quality and wastewater treatment throughout the state, “especially in the case of those from economically disadvantaged areas,” Kathie Smith, spokeswoman for the state water board, wrote in an e-mail.

Matt Conens, spokesman for the state public health department, wrote in an e-mail that the legislation signed by Brown “will help ensure that every Californian has access to clean and safe sources of water. Protecting the water we drink is an absolutely crucial duty of state government.”

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