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August 7, 2013
Editorial: Bill distracts from larger task of clean water

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(Aug. 7 -- By the Editorial Board)

For more than a decade, poor residents of small rural communities in the Central Valley have been drinking water contaminated with arsenic, nitrates and other pollutants. Polluted water continued to flow through people's taps even as the state held onto close to a half billion dollars in federal Safe Drinking Water Act funds that could have been used to provide safe potable water to destitute residents.

The California Department of Public Health has recently proposed and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency signed off on a plan to speed delivery of federal water funds to communities that need it. But not everyone is convinced that the plan will solve the problem.

Assemblyman Henry Perea, D-Fresno, continues to push Assembly Bill 145, a measure that would shift the state's drinking water program from Public Health to the State Water Resources Control Board, an agency which he believes will move federal clean water funds more quickly and efficiently.

But critics of the Perea bill argue persuasively that just changing the agency that dispenses the funds won't get the job done.

Those communities that most need help lack the technical, financial and administrative resources necessary to build and operate complicated and expensive water delivery and purification systems. They need more than money. They need technical and managerial expertise as well.

It may make better sense to expand nearby regional water agencies so that they can annex the rural isolated communities with serious water pollution problems.

Where there are legal impediments to such annexations, the laws should be changed.

Meanwhile, representatives for the Association of California Water Agencies, an organization representing agencies that supply water to 98 percent of Californians, worry that the shift Perea's legislation seeks will disrupt a drinking water program that works well for the vast majority of state residents. The State Water Resources Control Board, they argue, confronts too much on its plate now, including such thorny issues as Delta flows, waste water regulation, water quality regulation and enforcement and storm water rules. Adding the state's drinking water program would put additional strain on an already overburdened agency.

Perea is understandably frustrated by the Department of Public Health's past performance. But he and other critics need to recognize the larger challenge of helping Valley communities build the capacity to apply for federal funds, regardless of who is dispensing them.

This isn't rocket science, folks. It won't be easy, and it will take collaboration. But if California leaders can devote years and billions of dollars to building a pair of water tunnels through the Delta, they certainly can spend a far smaller amount of time and money making sure all California have basic clean water - a life-giving resource to which everyone is is entitled.

The Bee's past stands

"It's incomprehensible and inexcusable. More than 2 million California residents do not have access to clean drinking water .... The water coming through their taps is polluted."

- April 24, 2013

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