The Fresno Bee: Call to action - Valley’s contaminated water is like ‘third world country’

December 21, 2017
By Dr. Ed Hernandez

At the end of 2017, California finds itself at a major crossroads. With Washington, D.C., refusing to lead on the issues that matter to most Americans and putting California values in its crosshairs, our Golden State has done a fantastic job of showing the rest of the country – and the world – that things can be different.

However, we have made a serious omission from our progressive priorities: we have yet to fully address California’s growing water crisis.

It is tempting to overlook an issue that doesn't affect most areas of California, with such a large economy and our state’s many successes, like combating Big Pharma and providing tuition-free community college to California residents.

If we truly want California to shine as an example of progressive leadership, then we cannot allow people living in the Valley to be treated like second-class citizens, without access to clean drinking water.

It is morally unconscionable that we have families living with contaminated water pouring from their taps. As human beings, we cannot survive, let alone thrive, without water. These families deserve clean water that is safe to use and safe to drink.

I recently went to the San Joaquin Valley and visited with families who unfortunately live with deadly contaminants in their drinking water. I met with Bertha and her family at their home in the small town of East Orosi. She brought me a crystal-clear pitcher of water that appeared innocuous. However, it harbored unsafe levels of nitrates. Daily tasks such as washing their hands, taking showers or cooking are simply unsafe.

A United Nations representative compared California’s drinking water system to that of a third-world country. This is a flagrantly unacceptable standard for a state with the 6th largest economy on the planet.

Here are the facts:

• As many as 1 in 4 schools in the Valley have been impacted by unsafe drinking water.

• Some families pay up to 10 percent of their monthly budget for clean water.

• There are upwards of 300 out-of-compliance water systems in the state.

• As many as 1 million Californians are exposed to unsafe drinking water each year.

These figures should set off alarm bells for all Californians, especially if you consider that the problem disproportionately impacts poor and Latino Californians. We need urgent statewide action to address this issue, and the state Legislature has tools it can use to protect these vulnerable Californians.

In this past year, I became the co-author of Senate Bill 623 by Sen. Bill Monning, which was introduced in order to create a Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund. The fund was the result of an historic agreement between the agricultural industry and environmental activist groups, who both agreed to contribute to the fund in order to help ensure that every California household has access to clean water.

The bill would institute a nominal fee on water bills across the state, at less than $1 per month per household, and also include a fertilizer fee. A problem of this magnitude requires all of California to come together to fix it.

Between these two funding mechanisms, our state would be able to raise enough money to ensure that no Californian ever need worry again about turning on their faucet and getting water that could hurt them or their loved ones if they drank it, or bathed in it, or cooked with it.

Most of us take these regular tasks for granted. After meeting with the hard-working families of the Valley, I couldn't help but think of my own family – my mother and father and the struggles they faced as they raised a family in the working-class city of La Puente. A zip code shouldn't determine your quality of life.

The right to water extends to all Californians. However, the conditions we see in the Valley do not adhere to this basic human right.

The bleak facts of the water crisis in the Valley are clear. We have a strong, fair proposal for a real, sustainable solution to the problem that will provide relief for California families without overburdening the rest of the state. Our neighbors’ struggle is our shared struggle, and we must all ensure that every Californian can access their right to safe and affordable drinking water.

Dr. Ed Hernandez, optometrist, is a West Covina Democrat who serves as chairman of the Senate Health Committee and represents the 22nd state Senate District. He can be contacted at Senator.Hernandez@senate.ca.gov.

To read the op-ed online, please click here