Over the past several months, CCM has been closely engaged with the effort to provide growers liability protection against the State Water Resources Control Board for nitrate contamination of groundwater.  As we have chronicled in the Market Memo, SB 623 (Monning, D – Carmel) is the vehicle to achieve the desired result.  Simply, the bill would create the Safe and Affordable Drinking Fund within the state treasury and authorize a fee paid by all domestic and municipal water users and agriculture for clean drinking water projects with priority on disadvantaged communities. In exchange for paying the fee, irrigated agriculture (as well as dairies and livestock operations) would be protected from enforcement, such as cease and desist or clean-up and abatement orders, by the regional boards and the State Board.

The proposal, despite widespread support by agriculture, irrigation districts, and the environmental justice community, has drawn criticism for being a “tax on water.” The most outspoken opponent is the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA).  According to a recent article in the Sacramento Bee, Tim Quinn, the association’s executive director, “said a problem caused to a considerable degree by farming shouldn’t be solved ‘by putting a charge on somebody’s bill in Los Angeles or San Diego or San Francisco.’” ACWA and others argue that the state should explore other funding opportunities. CCM agrees that it is prudent to pursue any and all available funds to provide relief to provide clean drinking water. In fact, SB 623 requires the State Board each year to calculate the availability of other funds before setting the fee amount for the next year. However, reliable and dedicated funding is needed, especially for operation and maintenance costs, which is in many cases the delimitating factor for eligibility for state and federal bond money.  Moreover, it is critical that this dedicated fund be tied to liability protection for growers. Only an action by the state legislature can provide this protection.

The legislature decided not to take action on action on the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund in the budget as recommended by Governor Brown, and instead signaled that they will continue to work on the issue this summer by setting aside $23.5 million in state funds for “safe drinking water actions later this legislative session.”

Last week, CCM Board Members James Sherwood and Jared Plumlee traveled to Sacramento for meetings with members about the importance of the liability protection for agriculture, and why it is critical a solution is resolved before the end of the legislative session.

CCM staff will continue to engage with the legislature on this issue and work with our coalition partners in order to achieve a solution for agriculture.