California Lawmakers Propose Voluntary Tax on Drinking Water

August 21, 2018 Updated: August 21, 2018

A new tax aiming at addressing unsafe drinking water in rural areas of California is under the spotlight after lawmakers changed the tax from mandatory to voluntary.

Senate Bill 845 requires that starting from July 1, 2019, a voluntary drinking water tax will be automatically added onto California ratepayers’ bills. Customers will need to opt out via their community water system in order to avoid the tax, which is expected to cost 95 cents for most customers.

In addition, Senate Bill 844 proposes a mandatory fee on dairy producers starting 2021 and fertilizer manufacturers starting 2019.

Cows graze on a dairy farm on August 24, 2016, in Porterville in California’s Central Valley.
Well water testing has uncovered dangerously high level of nitrates in the water in areas of this farming community about 160 miles north of Los Angeles. Fertilizers and cow manure are among the leading causes of nitrate pollution in well water. Too much nitrate in drinking water poses a risk to infants under six months of age including a condition called “blue baby syndrome” (ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

The revenue from SB 844 and 845 could generate $100 million per year, according to The Sacramento Bee. The money will be used to establish the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund to provide safe drinking water in vulnerable areas that are threatened by nitrates, lead, arsenic and other contaminants.

“These bills are now the legislature’s best opportunity to bring clean and safe drinking water to the nearly 1 million Californians who cannot drink the water that comes out of their faucets,” Senator Bill Monning, who introduced the bills, told the Sacramento Bee.

According to the Annual Compliance Report issued by the California State Water Resources Control Board, around 2800 violations of drinking water standards across the state were reported in 2017. About 592,000 residents were affected, since their water exceeded the maximum contaminant level (MCL) or did not meet the treatment technique requirement (TT), which are the thresholds used by EPA in determining if water from a public water system is safe to drink.

Among the 2,800 violations in 2017, the majority were in remote areas of California, including 815 counts in Kern County, 413 in Tulare, 328 in Fresno and 282 in Monterey. Lack of funding and low income in affected communities could be reasons why these water issues were not fixed.

A grove of young pistachio trees near Porterville, California, August 24, 2016.
Agricultural fertilizers as well as cow manure from dairy farms have led to domestic wells in California’s Central Valley having dangerously high levels of nitrates making it unsafe to drink. In Californias top farming regions, up to 250,000 consumers are highly susceptible to encountering nitrate contamination in their drinking water, according a report released earlier this month by the Agricultural Sustainability Institute at the University of California at Davis.(ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

Gov. Jerry Brown was pushing for a mandatory drinking water tax, but finally relented in June after lawmakers agreed to allocate $5 million from the general fund to solve lead-related drinking water issues. His deputy press secretary Ali Bay confirmed to the Sacramento Bee that Brown supports the voluntary drinking water tax.

However, Democratic lawmakers are cautious about creating any new taxes in the wake of a backlash after the $52 billion gas tax was passed last year.