In the same week he became governor of California, Gavin Newsom made a surprise visit to the Monterey Park Tract, a rural enclave of low-income residents southwest of Ceres, to draw attention to water quality issues in the state.
The media was not notified that Newsom would visit with residents on Thursday to talk about water issues. He brought along 11 members of his cabinet to the small neighborhood before heading over to Grayson Charter School in Westley to focus on water there. He told Modesto Bee reporters – they were tipped off to the visit – that the stop was about “not just safe drinking water, but affordable safe drinking water.”
In announcing his budget last week, the new governor proposed a statewide tax on water to create what he calls a “safe and affordable drinking water fund” that would “enable the State Water Resources Control Board to assist communities, particularly disadvantaged communities, in paying for the short-term and long-term costs of obtaining access to safe and affordable drinking water.” All California households would face a tax of 95 cents a month, or $11.40 a year, under Newsom’s plan. It immediately came under fire by Republicans and the Association of California Water Agencies, a group that represents more than 400 water suppliers in California. ACWA said Newsom’s tax idea is “highly problematic” and unnecessary “when alternative funding solutions exist and the state has a huge budget surplus.”
The same board is wildly unpopular in the Valley after it called for local reservoirs on the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers to be flushed to the Bay for fish preservation purposes. Many suspect the Bay Delta Plan is merely an attempt for the state to steal water for the Twin Tunnels project to pipe water to Southern California.
On his Twitter page, Newsom wrote: “Took my cabinet on a surprise visit to the Central Valley to hear directly from folks who lack access to affordable, clean water. Our first stop: we met with residents who cannot drink or bathe with the water in their homes – while paying more for it than those in Beverly Hills.”
The 44 homes in the Monterey Park Tract were receiving its water from wells on the site until state regulations deemed the water unsafe to drink because of nitrates and arsenic. In 2015 under pressure from the state and county, the city of Ceres reluctantly decided to run a water line to Monterey Park Tract. The pipeline and other connections were paid for by a $2.2 million grant from the state of California under Proposition 84.
The rural subdivision was created in 1941 with 89 parcels off of Monte Vista Avenue between Crows Landing and Carpenter roads. It has been served by a Community Services District since 1984. The district was formed because the individual wells that served the area were shut down for problems with nitrates. Residents have to drink and cook with bottled water because of high arsenic content.
The politics of the governor’s visit left Ceres City Manager Toby Wells – who also was not told about the meeting until after it happened – seeing red. He said Ceres provides water to the Monterey Park Tract Community Services District. In October when the city found 1,2,3-Trichloropropane (TCP) levels exceeded the Maximum Contaminant Level, or MCL, the state has mandated that the city of Ceres correct that system and had to notify all customers.
Most cities in the Valley are struggling with the state with TCP since in July 2017, the State Water Resources Control Board approved the maximum contaminant level (MCL) for TCP of 5 parts per trillion (ppt), and compliance monitoring began in January 2018.
“The district is responsible to notify their residents,” said Wells. “What we’re understanding is they haven’t been doing that. That’s not our problem but apparently someone out there is connected to the governor or someone at the State Water Board and are now trying to say this is somehow our fault, that we didn’t provide notice to the residents. Well, the residents are not our customers.”
Wells said the visit was all about Newsom stumping for his water tax. He also is not happy about the state taking away a city or water provider’s ability to shut off water service to those who don’t pay their bill.
“Secondly they’re going to tax all the rest of the folks – but they won’t call it a tax, of course – so the low-income folks can get subsidized on their water costs,” said Wells.
Wells sees the state as the problem.
“All we did was be forced to provide water to them and now it’s our fault? This same state changed the state water standard.”Ceres City Manager Toby Wells
“All we did was be forced to provide water to them and now it’s our fault?” asked Wells. “This same state changed the state water standard.”
He said the state continues to tighten water standards by increasing the MCL based on parts per trillion with little effect on health and creating headaches for water providers. Wells said that one part per trillion equals a grain of sugar in an Olympic sized swimming pool.
“Basically they say if you can detect it in the water, if you’re physically able to with the science we have today to detect it in the water, then it exceeds their standard. They’ve done it on every contaminant, so arsenic, nitrates, manganese – you name it. They continue to ratchet it down and this is no different. TCP was detected. They changed it, adopted a new MCL that is impossible to meet so pretty much everybody has TCP.”
Wells said the same state that is making it “impossible” to meet water standards is also causing water costs to be unaffordable for many Californians.
“Wait a minute – you created the problem and we’re supposed to solve it and then you question why it costs so much?” Wells hypothetically addressed the governor. “It costs so much because you have to treat the water to a standard that you set that nobody can meet. You see the connection here?”
Not all agree that the state’s standards makes anyone safer. There’s no research showing that TCP, a manmade chlorinated hydrocarbon, has caused cancer spikes in specific communities. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has concluded that TCP is “likely to be carcinogenic to humans,” and the State Water Board suggests residents not shower with tainted water because they might inhale the chemical.
The state set the MCL at 5 parts per trillion, when the public health goal is 0.7 ppt. The state determination of whether water is safe to drink and use is made by public health experts, which have calculated the theoretical health risks of TCP at the MCL at a 1-in-142,857 cancer risk over a lifetime of exposure. A public health goal is the level of a contaminant below which there is no known or expected risk to health over a lifetime (assuming a person drinks two liters per day for 70 years), without regard to available treatment technology.