Humboldt Board of Supervisors Weigh in on Controversial Water Tax Bill

Water drop photo by Joao Paulo Martins, Flickr CC
Joao Paulo Martins, Flickr CC

The Humboldt County Board of Supervisors, along with representatives from other invested agencies, weighed in on a controversial “water tax” bill in a May 15 Board meeting.

Senate Bill 623, commonly referred to as the “drinking water tax” bill, aims to establish a statewide Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund that would provide disadvantaged communities in California with access to clean drinking water by creating a tax on water for individual households and businesses across the state.

The two-year bill was first introduced in February of 2017, and has since received a mix of both support and opposition from various agencies and individuals throughout California.

In last Tuesday’s meeting, the Board of Supervisors opened this issue up for discussion, and important points were raised about both the positives and the negatives of this bill. While no action has been taken by the Board at this point, this initial discussion made it clear that this is an extremely complex issue with strong opinions on both sides.

The discussion about SB 623 at the recent Board meeting was recommended by 3rd District Supervisor Mike Wilson, who began the conversation by giving meeting attendees some background on the issue. Here Wilson also stated that he was not advocating that the Board take a position on the issue at this time, but that he did want to start a conversation about the topic and to allow for comments from other Board members and members of the public.

Some members of the Board of Supervisors were set to attend a California State Association of Counties (or CSAC) meeting in the coming days, and CSAC is currently proposing taking a supporting position on the bill. Wilson mentioned that there has been strong opposition to the bill from various groups in Humboldt County, and that a discussion ought to be had about the issue before those members went on to discuss it at the CSAC meeting.

In his opening comments, Wilson explained some of the issues and complications inherent in this bill. His introduction of SB 623 drew attention to the vague nature of some of the goals and strategies outlined in the bill; while its aim is to provide access to safe, affordable water to disadvantaged communities, there is no agreed upon standard of what is “affordable” in terms of water, or where the cutoff is in determining what constitutes a “disadvantaged” community. Additionally, because the funds for this project would be collected and distributed by the state government, it would be up to their discretion how the money and resources are allocated, which raises other concerns for the people of Humboldt County.

This water tax bill has so far been widely supported by the agriculture and dairy industries, but has garnered significant opposition from water agencies, environmental organizations, and individuals across the state. Some groups that have spoken out in opposition to this water tax bill include the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District, the Association of California Water Agencies, and the California Coastkeeper Alliance along with its constituent groups.

Reasons for this opposition range from ecological concerns to philosophical ones, both of which were discussed in Tuesday’s meeting. One of the major concerns raised by environmental groups is that this bill would potentially cut back on the current environmental regulations and water quality standards imposed on agriculture and dairy businesses.

According to the California Coastkeeper Alliance, SB 623 in its current state would “create a pay-to-pollute scheme,” and would allow these industries to continue polluting practices so long as they contribute to the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund. The California Coastkeeper Alliance has stated that they are opposed to SB 623 unless it is amended to avoid these potential ecological ramifications.

The Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District is also in opposition to this bill, stating that although they support the idea of providing access to safe drinking water to all Californians, this is not the right way to do it. They are one of many organizations holding the position that the common goal of providing access to safe and affordable water can be attained through other means, and that we should seek out other options besides taxing our drinking water.

“SB 623 is not the answer,” reads a banner on the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District’s website, “It would turn our agency into a taxation entity that sends money to Sacramento… It is just not a sound policy.”

Another prominent organization standing in opposition to the water tax bill is the Association of California Water Agencies, or ACWA. They have been a leading figure in the #NoWaterTax Campaign, and have published numerous resources on their website to explain their concerns about the bill. ACWA was represented in the recent Board meeting by their Region 1 Vice Chair, Dennis Mayo, who not only reiterated some of the major concerns about the water tax bill, but also sought to dissolve the dichotomy between water agencies who oppose the bill and those who support it in the interest of helping disadvantaged communities gain access to clean water.

“As water agencies, we don’t want to be put over here. We’re right here in the middle of it,” Mayo insisted. “We care about our environment, we care about safe drinking water for the public delivered at an affordable price for disadvantaged communities.”

“And here’s another thing I personally care about, and I think that all of you should take very seriously,” Mayo continued, “We’ve never charged for the essential necessities of life. We don’t tax that… When we cross over this philosophical barrier of taxing the essential necessities of life, it’s done… It’ll keep growing.”

In addition to the environmental concerns already mentioned, Mayo and others present at the meeting raised concerns about the philosophical boundaries that would be crossed by creating a tax on drinking water. Many members of the Board of Supervisors also weighed in on the ethical component of this issue, and agreed that the bill poses a significant philosophical dilemma.

Supervisor Wilson, who initially brought this discussion before the Board, expressed this concern, stating that, “it is a bit of a moral question as to whether or not taxing drinking water is a threshold that we want to cross.”

“We can’t just go down this road of taxing the necessities of life,” argued 2nd District Supervisor Estelle Fennell, echoing the concerns of Dennis Mayo and others who oppose SB 623. “We don’t tax food, let’s not tax water, that’s even more important than food. What’s next, are we going to tax air?”

Despite the arguments that have been made against SB 623, there are many who continue to support this water tax bill. One group that supports the bill is the Western United Dairymen, who also sent a local representative to speak at Tuesday’s Board meeting.

Melissa Lema, who represents the organization in Humboldt, Mendocino, Sonoma and Marin counties, explained to the meeting attendees why local dairy farmers are in favor of passing this bill. She talked about how the dairy industry throughout California is struggling, and how local organic dairies are being hit the hardest by the regulations imposed on their industry.

“The reason that we’re supporting this is the protection from liability that it offers to producers,” Lema explained in her statement to the Board.

Even 1st District Vice-Chairperson Rex Bohn, who hasn’t taken an opposing or supporting position on SB 623, brought up some good points about the importance of this effort to provide clean water access to underserved and underrepresented communities. Throughout the meeting he reminded attendees that, while it’s easy for people in Humboldt County to oppose the bill, ultimately this issue largely affects the disadvantaged communities in the Central Valley who don’t have the means to advocate for themselves.

Bohn explained that the issue of access to quality drinking water in those communities is a direct effect of the pollution caused by the huge agriculture industry in that region – which we benefit from every day, as we go to the supermarket and buy fresh produce that was grown in the Central Valley. While he wasn’t advocating for SB 623, he certainly raised some good points about our moral obligation to solving the clean water issue that is currently affecting millions of Californians.

Ultimately, the Board agreed that this is a very big issue that needs to be dealt with, but many felt that we should look for another way to solve the problem rather than passing SB 623.

It is clear from this discussion at the Board meeting that this is a very complicated and highly-nuanced issue. While there were no positions agreed upon and no action has been taken by the Board yet, this issue will certainly warrant more attention from the Board and other legislative bodies in the coming months.


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