Mad River Union
HUMBOLDT – A state bill that proposes to tax drinking water has supporters but Humboldt County’s larger water districts and some county supervisors oppose it.
Senate Bill 623 aims to improve drinking water systems and quality in what are considered “disadvantaged communities,” mostly through a tax on drinking water.
Supervisor Mike Wilson sponsored a discussion of the bill at the May 15 Board of Supervisors meeting. Wilson said the bill’s intent is to address “significant water quality issues” associated with agricultural groundwater pollution and use, mostly in the Central Valley and Salinas Valley areas.
The bill directs the creation of a fund to upgrade agriculturally-impacted drinking water systems and water quality in the disadvantaged communities. Wilson described how that would be done, saying the proposed method enters new territory of taxation.
“There’s a tax on drinking water, which is a pretty big deal,” he said. “Taxing drinking water is a threshold we haven’t crossed before.”
He noted that bottled water and soda aren’t targeted for new taxes, which he attributed to “the lobbying efforts of those industries at the state and federal levels.”
The bill’s proposed funding mechanisms also includes taxes on fertilizer products and dairy products.
Dennis Mayo, a McKinleyville Community Services District (MCSD) boardmember, represented the Association of California Water Agencies and said there are alternatives to the SB 623 taxes, such as using federal and bond funds, and creating a state trust fund.
The water tax would amount to 95 cents per monthly bill, but Mayo warned against “crossing over this philosophical barrier of taxing the essentials of life,” saying that the taxation “is gonna keep growing and growing.”
In a letter to the county, MCSD General Manager Greg Orsini described water quality failures as “a social issue for the state” and said the MCSD’s stance is that water system fixes should be paid for through the state’s General Fund.
The Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District also “strongly opposes” SB 623, according to a letter from John Friedenbach, its general manager.
SB 623 has particular relevance for two supervisors – Supervisor Rex Bohn and Supervisor Estelle Fennell.
Bohn is chair of the Rural Counties Representatives of California, which supports the bill. Fennell was preparing to represent the county at a May 16 legislative conference of the California State Association of
Counties (CSAC), which proposes a position of support for the bill.
Although Bohn has reservations about taxing water, he described it as a means of paying for water treatment upgrades that Hispanic communities in the Central Valley can’t afford.
“And we pay for water now, I pay for it every month,” he said.
Fennell dismissed the concept of water taxation, however. “We can’t go down this road of taxing the necessities of life,” she said. “We don’t tax food, let’s not tax water, that’s even more important than food – what next, are we going to tax air? I mean, come on.”
Board Chair Ryan Sundberg agreed with Fennell’s comments and Wilson said he’s “a bit conflicted.”
Wilson said Humboldt also has disadvantaged communities but it’s uncertain whether most rural counties would have access to the tax funding because the bill doesn’t specify what defines eligibility.
Supervisors took no action on developing a stance on the bill but directed Fennell to summarize the discussion’s content to CSAC.