Gov. Newsom Signs Bill to Clean Up Drinking Water for 1 Million Californians

California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during a rally in San Francisco.  (Justin Sullivan/Getty)

The fight ended in Carolina Garcia’s backyard in Tombstone Territory, California.

For years, Sacramento lawmakers fought over how to fund efforts to clean up dirty drinking water in small towns and communities like Tombstone across the state.

Today, flanked by lawmakers, advocates, and residents like Garcia, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill that will carve out $130 million annually to pay for clean water projects.

“The fact that more than a million Californians can’t rely on clean water to drink or bathe in, is a moral disgrace,” said Newsom in a prepared statement. “Parents shouldn’t have to worry about their kids drinking from the water fountain at school, and families shouldn’t have to dump water over their heads to shower every day.”

Garcia says her problem is that recent tests of her domestic well show high levels of contamination from nitrate, a by-product of nitrogen fertilizer commonly used by farms outside of Tombstone.   

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“Not only do I have to conserve my water and make sure [my well] does not go dry, but I also am living with the fear of being exposed to nitrates,” she said in Spanish to Newsom with the aid of a translator.

Jovita Torres said that the well at her house went dry.

“It cost us $30,000,” she said, also in Spanish. “We are surrounded by agriculture. During the drought, they drilled deeper wells, which meant that our wells went dry, sooner. We have to dig deeper to have water, and that is our problem.”

From left to right: Jovita Torres; Senator Anna Caballero; Assemblymember Richard Bloom; Gov Newson; Veronica Garibay; Senator Bill Monning; Carolina Garcia (Governor Newsom's Office)

Tombstone, located in Fresno County, is a small rural community with about 40 homes that are all on domestic wells, according to the Fresno Bee.

The state estimates that more than a million California residents don’t have access to clean drinking water. Lawmakers all agreed that the problem needed to be addressed -- just not where the money should come from.

“My own daughter pays $200 a month for her water bill,” said civil rights icon Dolores Huerta to Newsom at one point during the signing, which is archived on the Governor’s Facebook page online.

“$200 a month?” Newsom said.

“And she still has to buy bottled water,” she said.  

“So, she’s paying for water that she can’t drink?” Newsom said.

“Exactly... and just like her, hundreds of thousands of people are in the same situation as she is,” Huerta said. “They have to pay the water bill, and they still have to buy water.”

While she spoke, Newsom looked on with his hands pressed together.

Huerta spent her life advocating for better working conditions for farmworkers. She co-founded the United Farm Workers of America union with Cesar Chavez.

In addition to Huerta, Newsom was joined by state Sen. Bill Monning, D-Caramel; Sen. Anna Caballero, D-Salinas; Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica; and Veronica Garibay, co-founder and co-director of Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, a public-interest law firm that’s advocated for cleaning up drinking water for residents in the San Joaquin Valley.

“Communities throughout the San Joaquin Valley and beyond have had to deal with not having safe drinking water,” said Garibay, who  translated the conversation between Newsom and the residents. "They are living with the fear of contamination, living with the fear of a well going dry, not having bottled water, not having the economic means to have bottled water in your home. The scale of the crisis is huge.”

Last January, Newsom made clear his intention to rebuild broken drinking water infrastructure with a tax on water bills, but the Legislature didn’t approve the plan, with some lawmakers worried that their constituents wouldn’t accept a new monthly tax given the state's huge budget surplus.

Instead, Newsom and the Legislature decided to use revenue from California’s cap-and-trade climate program, which was created to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Environmentalists and some lawmakers -- most notably, State Sen. Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont -- balked at that decision, arguing that it weakens the integrity of the climate program. They argued that, while important, the issue of clean drinking water has nothing to do with reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Wieckowski was the only state senator to vote against the plan, which passed the Senate in a 38-1 vote earlier this month.

Newsom didn’t say anything about the criticism, but his staff addressed it in a press release that was emailed to reporters. It asserted that the state will be more resilient to climate change by securing drinking water across California.

California will use 5% of its cap-and-trade proceeds, up to $130 million annually, for clean water projects until 2030.

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