A new report from the state water board calls for the Legislature to enact new fees to pay for measures designed to clean up nitrate-contaminated groundwater, especially in major agricultural areas such as the Salinas Valley.
The report, issued Wednesday, includes 15 recommendations to address a range of water issues. Among the recommendations: providing clean drinking water, especially for small, disadvantaged communities that rely on contaminated groundwater linked to heavy fertilizer use.
An estimated 2.6 million people, many from some of the poorest communities in the state, rely on groundwater for drinking water in the Salinas and San Joaquin valleys, according to an earlier report by UC Davis.
Nitrate-contaminated drinking water has been linked to birth defects, cancer and other diseases.
Wednesday's report, issued in response to state legislation on nitrate contamination approved in 2008, urges lawmakers to protect groundwater sources from further contamination, monitor and manage contaminated groundwater, and track and report nitrogen fertilizing materials.
But the report said its most critical recommendation is to create a reliable, stable funding source to "ensure all Californians, including those in (disadvantaged communities), have access to safe drinking water."
New funding sources proposed in the report include a point-of-sale fee on agricultural commodities, a fee on nitrogen fertilizing materials or a water use fee.
The organization said Monterey County's ag industry brings in more than $3 billion per year, while small rural communities are left to deal with the cost of unsafe water.
However, Monterey County Farm Bureau Executive Director Norm Groot said additional taxes or fees, and expensive regulations, would place an unwise burden on an ag industry already struggling in recent years.
Groot said he hadn't fully analyzed the report and its recommendations, but said local farmers had been "bracing" for a fertilizer fee. He said he would need more details about the size and purpose of any proposed fees, but said: "I doubt ag can afford another tax."
The report suggested the state water board and Regional Water Quality Control Board use their authority to order those responsible for nitrate contamination to provide replacement water for affected communities. It called for the Legislature to set up a regulatory framework for providing safe drinking water and to develop, operate and manage new systems for disadvantaged communities.
The water boards would be required to define and identify areas at high risk of nitrate contamination to prioritize regulatory oversight and assistance in the areas.
New and improved groundwater monitoring programs are needed, according to the report, and the Legislature should require that well owners and small unregulated water systems in high-risk areas be identified and notified.
The water boards and state Food and Agriculture officials should convene a task force to work on a nitrogen tracking system, the report recommended, and a panel of experts should be convened to assess existing ag nitrate control programs and suggest improvements as needed.
The state board relied on the UC Davis report as a foundation for its findings and recommendations, and included input from an interagency task force that included representatives from the state Departments of Public Health, Food and Agriculture and Pesticide Regulation, as well as the state's Environmental Protection Agency and local environmental health agencies.
The UC Davis report's major findings include:
· Nitrate problems will likely worsen for decades after infiltrating the Salinas Valley and Tulare Lake Basin aquifers for more than a half century.
· Ag fertilizers and animal wastes applied to cropland are by far the largest regional sources of nitrate in groundwater.
· Many small communities can't afford safe drinking water treatment.
· The most promising revenue source is a fertilizer fee.
· A statewide data collection effort is needed.
The report was released as Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, announced he and several colleagues had introduced a package of nine bills aimed at addressing the state's "drinking water crisis." Alejo's bill, AB 1, is called the Salinas Valley Clean Water Funding Bill.
Jim Johnson can be reached at 753-6753 or firstname.lastname@example.org.