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California Slow to Fund Clean Water

California Slow to Fund Clean Water



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California residents drive to find clean water, while the government sits on money

According to the Los Angeles Times, the clean and safe water coming out of our showers and sinks is not available for the unlucky citizens of Lanare, California.

A little outside of Fresno, California, this "impoverished" town is in dire need of clean water. For years, they have been dealing with water that is only safe to flush. Cooking and drinking the liquid is out of the question. Arsenic from agricultural processes runs through their water systems.

Why isn’t the state of California doing something about this? They question is certainly not about a lack of monetary funds: California has the “largest share of unspent money for improving drinking water in the nation.” The United States Environmental Agency has given the state’s Department of Health a deadline of June 24th to come up with plan to fix the funding and streamline their allocation process.

While two million of California’s residents are living without clean drinking water, the rest of the population can grab a glass of tap water without a second thought. So why are these communities suffering when others don’t have to?

For starters, these communities do not have the standing to apply for grants, or technical experts to fix their current situation. Even when money does come in to help fix the water systems, it often goes to waste, which the Los Angeles Times attributes to bad planning and lack of coordination.

While state officials and water advocates are making small victories in the fight to bring clean water to these communties, the Lanare residents aren't holding their breath. The town was awarded $500,000 in December for a study on how to fix their particular situation, but it could be months before clean water is available in their town. Currently, the citizens of Lanare are having to drive 20 miles to Fresno or Hanford to buy their water, and still paying $54 a month for water they can't even drink.


For Californians Without Water Access, Coronavirus Adds Another Layer of Struggle

As Californians shelter at home amid the COVID-19 outbreak, an estimated 1 million of them lack access to clean drinking water, largely in rural parts of the state. Photo credit: iStock.

Lucy Hernandez knew something was wrong when she arrived at a Walmart store in Visalia, California, last month, shortly before Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a statewide stay-at-home order to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

On the normally well-stocked shelves, Hernandez couldn’t find bottled water.

Alarmed, she jumped back in her car and headed to Costco. No water. She tried the 99 Cents Only store, the Dollar Tree and Target. No water. Desperate, Hernandez drove 20 miles to Hanford, but still couldn’t find water for sale.

A grandmother of three, Hernandez lives with nine other family members in the tiny community of West Goshen, just east of Visalia. Residents in the predominantly low-income Latino community distrust the local tap water because it has a history of contamination. Some rely on groundwater from private wells that haven’t been tested for safety. Like thousands of other residents across the Central Valley without access to safe water through their taps, many people in West Goshen rely on bottled water to drink.

“I was in shock,” Hernandez says. “I said, ‘How can this happen? How can we be without water bottles if we need the water?’

“A lot of our residents, they depend on this kind of water, and there was nothing, nothing.”

As Californians across the state shelter at home amid the COVID-19 outbreak, an estimated 1 million of them lack access to clean drinking water, one of the most fundamental resources for maintaining health and hygiene. Many of these residents are concentrated in rural parts of the state, particularly in the San Joaquin Valley, where dozens of small public water systems fail to meet safety standards, data shows.

Nationwide, millions more are exposed to unsafe tap water each year, often from small community water systems that largely serve rural and low-income communities of color. Lead from aging pipes and other toxic chemicals have turned up in urban water supplies as well, most notoriously in Flint, Michigan, in 2014. And a recent report by the Environmental Working Group detected widespread contamination of U.S. drinking water supplies with man-made “forever chemicals,” including in cities such as Miami, Philadelphia, and New Orleans.

Contaminated water isn’t the only issue. A third of Americans struggle to pay their water bills, a situation expected to worsen with the economic downturn. That’s especially an issue in Detroit, one of the COVID-19 hot spots, where until recently thousands of residents were without running water. However, some states, including Michigan and California, are now prohibiting water shut-offs during the pandemic.

Shoppers wait in a long line to enter Costco in Stockton. Photo credit: iStock.

Infrastructure woes

Last year, California’s governor signed into law Senate Bill 200, creating a $130 million a year Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund to support improvements to community water infrastructure. Implementation of that bill is underway, but it hasn’t come in time to help the thousands of people who now find themselves without safe tap water amid the coronavirus pandemic, advocates say.

“The issue of lack of access to tap water is huge in California,” says Michael K. Claiborne, senior attorney with the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, a community organizing group based in theSan Joaquin and Eastern Coachella Valleys. “This new COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated and magnified these problems that communities in California already face.”

Common pollutants found in noncompliant Central Valley water supplies include residual agricultural and industrial chemicals such as nitrates, arsenic, and a compound known as 1,2,3-TCP. These contaminants have been linked to serious health problems such as liver and kidney damage, respiratory ailments, blood pressure disorders, and cancer.

Susana De Anda, executive director of the Community Water Center, which works with communities in the San Joaquin Valley, says she’s worried people with contaminated tap water could resort to cooking with it or—even worse—drinking it. Her organization is hearing from many people in the same situation as Hernandez, she says.

“We’re getting calls and residents are asking, ‘Where can I get water? I’ve been going to multiple stores, and they have no water,’” De Anda says. “That’s a problem. This is California in 2020. The reality is, we need to be able to prioritize this resource for our at-risk communities.”

De Anda and Claiborne say the state should provide funding for emergency bottled water delivery to areas with shortages. Some communities with unsafe tap water already have bottled water distribution programs, Community Water CenterPolicy Director Jonathan Nelson explains. These programs need to be more widely publicized and applications streamlined so that people can get water supplies as soon as possible, he says.

The advocates applauded Newsom’s recent moratorium on water shut-offs for unpaid water bills during the coronavirus crisis, as well as the restoration of water service to people who had their water turned off for lack of payment since March 4. Nevertheless, that doesn’t resolve the problem for those who lack clean tap water, they say. It also doesn’t address people living without water because of shut-offs that happened before the pandemic, they add.

‘Water is something that everybody needs to live’

Democratic House leaders have proposed including $25 billion in the next COVID-19 stimulus bill to fund clean water infrastructure projects and provide funding for American households struggling to pay their water and sewer bills.

Back in West Goshen, Hernandez is still struggling to find bottled water for her family and neighbors. She searches the stores regularly—even though she fears going out could expose her to the virus—and networks with residents and relatives in other towns through phone and social media to find people with bottled water that they’re willing to share.

She says she wishes the county would have an emergency number people could call to get water, instead of her and her neighbors trying to solve the problem themselves.

“We’re trying to help each other, but if we don’t have the resources, then how can we help?” Hernandez says. “Water is something that everybody needs to live. We need to have water to drink, no matter what.”

This article is produced in partnership with YES! Media, a national nonprofit, independent publisher of solutions journalism that analyzes societal problems and what’s being done about them.


EPA survey ranks California No. 1 in water infrastructure needs

California could use $44.5 billion to fix aging water systems over the next two decades, according to a federal survey that placed the state at the top of a national list of water infrastructure needs.

Texas, at nearly $34 billion, and New York, with about $22 billion, were next in line.

The assessment, conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2011 and released Tuesday, is used to document the capital investment needs of public drinking water systems across the country. The EPA relies on the results to allocate grants through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund.

All told, the survey revealed a $384-billion wish list of infrastructure projects through 2030 -- $4.5 billion more than in the 2007 assessment.

In California and elsewhere, the biggest need was for repairing and upgrading water transmission and distribution lines. That will come as no surprise to residents of Los Angeles, where old mains routinely break, sending gushers of water flooding city streets. Treatment projects were next on the list.

“The nation’s water systems have entered a rehabilitation and replacement era in which much of the existing infrastructure has reached, or is approaching, the end of its useful life,” EPA acting Administrator Robert Perciasepe said in a statement. “This is a major issue that must be addressed so that American families continue to have the access they need to clean and healthy water sources.”

In April, the regional EPA administrator sent a letter of noncompliance to the California Department of Public Health, complaining that the state had failed to spend $455 million of federal money in another state revolving fund used to improve drinking-water quality in small rural communities with contaminated wells or other problems.

The EPA said the state had set much of the funding aside for projects that were not shovel ready, while other, ready-to-go projects languished.

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Bettina Boxall covered water and the environment for the Los Angeles Times before retiring in 2021 after 34 years at the paper. She shared the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting with colleague Julie Cart for their five-part series on the causes and effects of escalating wildfire in the West.


Live Updates

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has warned that without further relief New York will cut $8.2 billion in grants to local governments, a blow he said had “no precedent in modern times.” The cuts would hit “nearly every activity funded by state government,” including special education, pediatric health care, substance abuse programs, property-tax relief and mass transit, he said.

No two states have tackled the budget crunch the same way. Several have torn up their annual budgets and are doling out money to programs one or two months at a time. Some have earmarked cuts but not yet carried them out.

Delaware has decided to issue less debt, and a bond issue that was supposed to fund clean-water projects has been shelved. In California, people who go to court without lawyers — an estimated 4.3 million a year — will continue to deal with confusion because the state has scrapped plans for “court navigators” to shepherd them through. Nevada said it would forgo the penalties and interest it normally charged tax cheats, hoping to coax them and their unpaid millions up from underground. In Maryland, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will lose a $1.6 million state subsidy.

Some states are trying to save cash on their pension contributions. Kentucky has delayed its payments to the state workers’ pension fund, already one of the most poorly funded in the country. Colorado and Maryland are among the states planning to reduce their contributions. Some, like California and New Jersey, had recently committed to raising their contributions to cover past underpayments — but now can’t afford to do so.

Without further federal aid, some of the biggest cuts will be to education and health care. California says it will send its school districts $12.5 billion in I.O.U.s if Washington doesn’t step in, and it will be on the schools to figure out how to fund themselves in the meantime. Preschool programs are being cut in many states so are free-tuition college programs. State university systems are slated to lose billions of dollars in state funding, although some states say the cuts will be quickly reversed if enough federal money arrives.

And many states say they will reduce their outlays for Medicaid. The health care program for low-income people has been growing rapidly in the pandemic as millions have lost their jobs along with their employee health benefits. States are struggling to find a way to pay for all these additional people. Some, like Colorado, are increasing the co-payments that their Medicaid patients must pay for doctor visits, pharmaceuticals and medical transport.

State officials say they have little choice but to keep cutting if more aid doesn’t arrive. All but one state, Vermont, are legally bound to balance their budgets every year, and Vermont does so voluntarily. They can’t borrow their way out of a cash crunch, the way Washington can, because they have laws limiting how much bond debt they can carry. If they veer too close to the limit, lenders will start demanding higher interest rates and the rating agencies will downgrade them.

In May, the Federal Reserve offered to buy states’ bonds if terms in the municipal bond market become onerous. But most states think the Fed loans cost too much and have to be paid back too quickly to be of much help. So far only one state, Illinois, and one state authority, New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, have taken the Fed up on its offer. New Jersey and Hawaii are exploring deals, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, which tracks the states’ fiscal plans as they develop.

Public pensions have been a central point of contention in discussions over additional federal aid.

In April, with economic activity at low ebb, Illinois lawmakers sent a detailed wish list to their state’s congressional delegation that included $10 billion for the coming year’s pension contribution. They also asked for $9.6 billion for Illinois’s cities, which needed the money to “fund retirement systems for the police, firefighters and other first responders providing emergency services during this Covid-19 outbreak.”

The request drew scorn in Washington.

On a syndicated radio show, Mr. McConnell said Senate Republicans would “certainly insist that anything we’d borrow to send down to the states is not spent on solving problems that they created for themselves over the years with their pension programs.”

Glenn Hubbard, an economic conservative who was chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush, said he agreed that federal money should not be used to prop up failing state pension funds. But he acknowledged that the states’ cash needs were becoming urgent and said there wasn’t time for a complete overhaul of troubled state pension systems.

For the sake of speed, Mr. Hubbard said in an interview, Congress could send the states money with a simple, and probably breakable, rule that it not be used to reduce taxes or bail out pensions. Public pension reform, which would be grueling, could come later.


Infrastructure woes

Last year, California’s governor signed into law Senate Bill 200, creating a $130 million a year Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund to support improvements to community water infrastructure. Implementation of that bill is underway, but it hasn’t come in time to help the thousands of people who now find themselves without safe tap water amid the coronavirus pandemic, advocates say.

“The issue of lack of access to tap water is huge in California,” says Michael K. Claiborne, senior attorney with the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability, a community organizing group based in the San Joaquin and Eastern Coachella Valleys. “This new COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated and magnified these problems that communities in California already face.”

Common pollutants found in noncompliant Central Valley water supplies include residual agricultural and industrial chemicals such as nitrates, arsenic, and a compound known as 1,2,3-TCP. These contaminants have been linked to serious health problems such as liver and kidney damage, respiratory ailments, blood pressure disorders, and cancer.

Susana De Anda, executive director of the Community Water Center, which works with communities in the San Joaquin Valley, says she’s worried people with contaminated tap water could resort to cooking with it or—even worse—drinking it. Her organization is hearing from many people in the same situation as Hernandez, she says.

“We’re getting calls and residents are asking, ‘Where can I get water? I’ve been going to multiple stores, and they have no water,’” De Anda says. “That’s a problem. This is California in 2020. The reality is, we need to be able to prioritize this resource for our at-risk communities.”

De Anda and Claiborne say the state should provide funding for emergency bottled water delivery to areas with shortages. Some communities with unsafe tap water already have bottled water distribution programs, Community Water Center Policy Director Jonathan Nelson explains. These programs need to be more widely publicized and applications streamlined so that people can get water supplies as soon as possible, he says.

The advocates applauded Newsom’s recent moratorium on water shut-offs for unpaid water bills during the coronavirus crisis, as well as the restoration of water service to people who had their water turned off for lack of payment since March 4. Nevertheless, that doesn’t resolve the problem for those who lack clean tap water, they say. It also doesn’t address people living without water because of shut-offs that happened before the pandemic, they add.


No Faith Without Water

Try to imagine your morning routine without water. Brushing your teeth, taking a shower, using the bathroom, making tea or coffee. Practically every step requires a lot of water — clean and easily accessible.

For millions of women around the world, the morning routine is very different.

In developing countries around the world, women spend up to five hours every day collecting water from distant and often polluted sources, returning to their villages carrying 40-pound jerry cans on their backs. Water.org reports that women and children in 45 developing countries bear the primary responsibility for water collection. Bodies break down under the weight and often the water makes families sick. Some 50 diseases are related to poor water quality and lack of sanitation. And it’s the children under five who suffer the most.

Dignity and safety are hard to come by in a world without water and sanitation. Women and girls must sneak off into a secluded field in the dark of night for privacy, where some will be molested or raped. When a girl reaches puberty, she is either humiliated at school or misses several days each month — many drop out altogether just to manage menstruation. It’s an unfair reality that keeps millions of young women in poverty, with no way out.


Newsom Wants Tax on Water for ‘Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund’

Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed a tax on drinking water throughout the state to help poor communities in California deal with contaminated water systems.

Newsom’s plan to establish a “safe and affordable drinking water fund” is in his budget proposal, presented Thursday. A bill proposing a drinking water tax was introduced last year, but was killed during the committee process under threat of a veto by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Newsom is proposing to spend $25 million for the “Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund.” Despite a $15 billion state surplus, who and how California’s water will be taxed is not yet known.

Friday, Newsom took his staff on a field trip to the Central Valley to talk to residents who lack clean drinking water.

Yet for several years, Assemblyman Devon Mathis (R-Porterville) tried to get his colleagues in the Legislature to pass legislation to fund clean drinking water for the 10,000 poor constituents in his district reliant on groundwater wells which wells went dry in the drought.

Mathis authored AB 954 which would have provided $10 million to homeowners to dig deeper wells and clean contaminated ones. However, then-Senate Appropriations Chairman Ricardo Lara (D-Los Angeles) killed Mathis’ bill.

The city of East Porterville in Tulare County has had tens of thousands of poor and low-income residents go without drinking water for the many years due to the recent drought, and exacerbated by lack of infrastructure, and dry and contaminated wells.

Matthis tried again with AB 1588 which expanded access to the funds to not only homeowners but renters too. Sen. Lara put AB 1588 on the suspense file in its first hearing in the Senate Appropriations committee, claiming the total $10 million cost was too great. It finally passed the Appropriations committee, and Gov. Jerry Brown signed the bill in 2016 providing $15 million in loans and grants to homeowners to deepen dry wells.

“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 governor tweeted.

The Association of California Water Agencies weighed in, unsure of the water tax. “ACWA believes that making access to safe drinking water for all Californians should be a top priority for the State,” said Association of California Water Agencies Deputy Executive Director Cindy Tuck. “However, a statewide water tax is highly problematic and is not necessary when alternative funding solutions exist and the state has a huge budget surplus.”

Tuck said the ACWA prefers to work with Gov. Newsom, the Legislature and other stakeholders on a solution that does not impose a statewide water tax.

“To the surprise of absolutely no one, California’s new governor has proposed a state budget with billions in increased spending and lots of tax hikes,” said Jon Coupal, President of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. Coupal noted the state’s $14.8 billion budget surplus, and called the proposed tax an example of “California’s knee-jerk reaction to default to a new tax whenever there’s a new problem.”


Californians Vote On Measures To Fund Parks, Water Projects

LOS ANGELES (AP) – Californians are voting Tuesday on proposals to let the state borrow $4 billion for parks and conservation projects and change how revenues are allocated from its cap-and-trade pollution program.

Voters are heading to the polls to decide on five statewide ballot measures.

Proposition 68 would let California issue general obligation bonds to fund parks and environmental projects, including $200 million to help preserve the state’s largest lake. The Salton Sea has been evaporating since San Diego’s regional water agency stopped sending it water. The lake’s shrinkage has swept dust into nearby communities and threatened bird habitat.

The measure – which was approved for the ballot by the Legislature – would also provide $725 million for parks in underserved neighborhoods and fund clean drinking water and flood-prevention projects.

Proponents say the efforts are vital to help California mitigate natural disasters such as wildfires and floods and expand community access to parks. Opponents say the state shouldn’t take on new bond debt.

Another measure, Proposition 70, seeks to change how the Legislature determines how money is spent from California’s cap-and trade program, which generates billions of dollars each year by requiring polluters to buy permits to release greenhouse gases.

Cap and trade is projected to raise $2.7 billion during the current fiscal year. Spending the funds, like the rest of the state budget, requires a simple majority vote in each house of the Legislature. About a quarter of the revenues go to the state’s high-speed rail project, which is opposed by many Republicans.

If the measure passes, the Legislature would require a one-time two-thirds majority vote starting in 2024 to allocate these funds, which could give Republicans more say in the process.

The other measures on the ballot address how diesel tax revenues are spent, when ballot measures take effect and a tax break for installing rainwater-capture devices.

Proposition 69 would require the Legislature to spend money from a recently-approved diesel tax and vehicle fee on transportation projects. Lawmakers voted to put the measure on the ballot last year when they passed the gas tax increase, which Republicans want to repeal through a separate initiative in November.

Proposition 71 would change the effective date for ballot measures from the day after the election to five days after election results are certified. It would push back the effective start date for propositions about six weeks.

Proposition 72 would give a tax break to homeowners who install rainwater-capture devices on their properties in an effort to encourage more people to take the water-saving step.


Vermont Still Has No Plan to Pay for Clean Water

Vermont lawmakers have spent more than two decades debating how to clean up Lake Champlain and the state's other polluted waterways. Four years ago, they committed to finding a long-term, stable source of funds to get the job done. Two years ago, state Treasurer Beth Pearce offered up a menu of options to do just that.

Now, halfway through the 2019 legislative session, lawmakers appear no closer to making a decision.

The Vermont Senate is expected to consider a bill this week that would establish a new system for setting priorities and distributing antipollution funds, region by region. But in its current form, the measure includes no new taxes or fees to maintain the full $50 million to $60 million a year necessary to carry out the work. Though legislative leaders claim they'll add a funding source when the legislation reaches the House, environmental advocates aren't holding their breath.

"We're really nervous," said Jon Groveman, the policy and water program director for the Vermont Natural Resources Council.

To meet water quality goals, lawmakers must find a new source of $10 million to $20 million a year to augment about $40 million in existing state and federal spending.

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) said she expects the House Ways and Means Committee to propose a funding plan later this session, but the panel has yet to begin crafting a plan. Democrats, meanwhile, have rejected Republican Gov. Phil Scott's proposal to use proceeds of the estate tax, about $8 million a year.

"Every time there's a step, and there's an opportunity and expectation that money is provided and it's not, it seems like déjà vu all over again," said Groveman, who has been pressing lawmakers to come up with the cash since 2015. "It seems like we've seen this before. Who's going to step up and put the money in?"

The problem of polluted waterways is not a small one — or a new one.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said in 2016 that the flow of phosphorus to Lake Champlain must be reduced by one-third, or about 200 tons, and to Lake Memphremagog by 29 percent. Phosphorus — from cow manure, road runoff, stream-bank erosion and other sources across the landscape — is a nutrient that drives the growth of water weeds, algae and toxic bacteria in water bodies and makes them less suitable for recreation and drinking water.

Groveman said the state's past attempts to reduce water pollution relied on policies so weak that funding wasn't the biggest obstacle.

"We were failing on all fronts," Groveman said.

The 2016 order from the EPA not only made it clear that new policies were needed, Groveman said, but required the state to increase its investment in clean water.

So far, he said, "that money has gotten us really dirty water."

Pearce's January 2017 report outlined in painstaking detail how the state could ramp up its financial support for the costly changes that are needed to comply with EPA orders and the 2015 Vermont Clean Water Act. That law gave state agencies expanded power to regulate water quality and called for a range of new permitting systems designed to protect waterways from pollution related to development, agriculture, roadways and other human activity.

Scott and the legislature quickly followed Pearce's recommendation to provide a two-year, one-time infusion of $30 million by selling state bonds.

The money has helped pay for dozens of projects that contribute a tiny bit to reducing the overall problem. For example, a recent grant helped an Addison County farmer pay for a no-till corn planter because less tillage means less polluted runoff from his fields. Other grants helped reduce runoff from residential properties in Burlington, make improvements to municipal sewage systems and establish erosion controls to reduce runoff from back roads, among other things.

But Pearce said the temporary money was intended only to buy lawmakers and state agencies time to establish a long-term funding system for the many years of remaining work.

"This does not mean deferring decisions and the resulting actions down the road for another two years," she warned then. In addition to quickly finding a permanent source of new funds, lawmakers should develop a spending model that "maximizes cost efficiency and incentivizes local and regional decision making and implementation," she wrote.

Now, just three months before the temporary funds expire, lawmakers are working on a bill that addresses distribution of clean water funds but not how to raise all the needed money.

For environmental groups, the year started with a promising sign: After refusing for two years to identify a new, stable tax source to pay for clean water, Scott not only opened the door to new spending — he proposed it. The governor's budget recommendation for next year would steer revenues from the estate tax, collected when the wealthiest Vermonters die, into the state's Clean Water Fund instead of the state's General Fund.

"That's positive," Groveman said of Scott's acknowledgment that more dedicated funds are needed.

On the other hand, Groveman and other advocates were dismayed by the demise of the only water quality tax considered thus far by lawmakers this year. Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee chair Chris Bray (D-Addison) proposed to raise $14 million a year with a $40-per-parcel annual fee on every piece of land in Vermont. An additional fee for developed land would have been phased in later to bolster those funds.

But Bray couldn't convince the other four members of his committee. The bill, as it emerged from his panel earlier this month, was stripped of all revenue-raising. Instead, it would create a new system for spending money from the Clean Water Fund and to monitor the results of that spending.

Under that model, the state Agency of Natural Resources would work with 14 local agencies, such as regional planning commissions, to set local, watershed-specific pollution reduction goals and priorities. The 14 agencies would receive block grants, which they would have discretion to spend on improvements, as long as they met pollution reduction targets and reported their progress to the state.

That redesign has won the support of Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore, who said her agency could use help managing the thousands of potential cleanup projects across the state.

"We recognize that we are in some ways a bottleneck in the system," she said.

Rebekah Weber, the Conservation Law Foundation's Lake Champlain advocate, called Bray's bill, S.96, "an important step in being transparent and accountable" with clean water money.

She said accountability and monitoring are particularly important because the job ahead is so huge. "We need to remove around 213 metric tons of phosphorus from Lake Champlain," Weber said. "That's just Lake Champlain. There are other obligations in other watersheds. We're not near that goal."

But she also said there is a major flaw in the plan.

"There is no money," Weber said. "We've created some pretty innovative and important structures to get the money out the door, but S.96 does not deliver on money in its current form."

To replace the temporary funds and keep the state on track with its clean water obligations under state and federal law, Weber's organization is calling for $25 million in new spending this year.

Scott's proposal to use the estate tax would add an estimated $8 million, but it hasn't been well received in the legislature or the environmental community because it would starve the cash-strapped General Fund of that money. Nor did Bray's short-lived per-parcel-fee gain traction, leaving the legislature without an apparent plan to keep paying for the work required by state and federal law.

Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) said the focus on raising money is misplaced. He emphasized that the targets legislators are trying to meet have to do with water quality, not spending some specified amount of money.

"When we arrived here this year, our primary mission was cleaning up the water," he said. "Discussing revenue streams and all that are secondary to the actual policy of cleaning up the water."

Still, Ashe said he and his fellow senators "are all committed to the broad contours of an annual effort in the range that was described both by the EPA and by Beth Pearce's report, which was in that 50 to 60 [million dollar] range."

Because of the importance of spending clean water money efficiently, Ashe said, it was important to keep Bray's bill on track for passage even without consensus on how to raise that money.

"We've got to figure out how to make our annual payment of between $50 and $60 million, but that doesn't have to happen to hold up a bill that's focused on making sure the work projects are prioritized and done the right way," Ashe said.

Plus, he said, it takes time to develop sound budgets.

"If we don't like the governor's proposal, we have to find the replacement money," he said. "But we don't walk in here with all the solutions just ready."

In fact, lawmakers have had access to a list of possible solutions for more than two years. Pearce's January 2017 report listed 64 potential revenue streams to pay for clean water and estimated how much cash each might provide. Her possibilities ranged from a tax on nail salons ($2.23 million in potential revenue) to a $50 per parcel fee ($16.7 million in potential revenue). Every legislative proposal since then has been a variation on one of Pearce's ideas, but none has passed.

With S.96 poised to move to the House, environmental groups and senators are looking to that chamber's Ways and Means Committee, which oversees all state revenues, to come up with a plan.

A year ago, Johnson told Seven Days, "We know it's a huge responsibility. Coming up with a new funding source is never easy, particularly when there are a lot of competing needs, but we've got to buckle down sometime."

In fact, the House last year passed a measure to raise clean water money with an increased rooms-and-meals tax. The Senate rejected the idea.

Johnson noted last week that the legislature has raised some new money for the Clean Water Fund in the past — money that helped the state reach its existing water quality budget. A 2016 addition to the property transfer tax provides $4 million to $6 million a year, she said. Later, lawmakers redirected revenues from unclaimed bottle deposits — about $2 million a year — to the Clean Water Fund. Because of that revenue, Johnson said, the money budgeted for a two-year funding surge is likely to last longer than two years.

"We're not at nothing," she said of the funding plan. "We're waiting for the final piece. And while everyone's been sitting around saying, 'Where's the silver bullet? Where's the silver bullet?' we've been quietly saying, 'And here's a piece, and here's a piece, and here's a piece.'"

She declined to say what that last piece would be.

"I'm very confident," Johnson said, adding that Ways and Means Committee chair Janet Ancel (D-Calais) has said she hopes to propose up to $10 million in new funding — more than Scott's $8 million. Asked whether she has any specific proposals in mind, Ancel said the committee will figure it out in the next few weeks.

Groveman remains hopeful that the legislature will fund its obligations before adjournment, but he's not confident.

"If history is any indication, we have reason to be concerned," he said. "Because there's no track record of getting over the finish line."

Correction, 3/28/19: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized Gov. Scott’s previous position on long-term clean water funding.


State To Pump $10 Million Into Fund To Clean Up Chicago River

CHICAGO (CBS) — The State of Illinois plans to add $10 million to a $21 million fund to disinfect sewage flowing into the Chicago River, as Chicago joins other major cities in making the most of a natural asset.

As WBBM Newsradio&rsquos John Cody reports, Gov. Pat Quinn joined Mayor Rahm Emanuel along the river&rsquos North Branch near Division Street and Goose Island Thursday afternoon, to talk about some ambitious plans for the river.

The fund will build systems for disinfecting sewage so that the river will be swimmable and fishable, and will feature walking and biking paths along its entire length.

&ldquoFor the 2016 recreation season, this will be in full effect,&rdquo Quinn said.

Quinn says there will be boathouses for kayaking, among many other new features.

&ldquoSo that people when they kayak, or they walk along the river, or do anything they want &ndash to look at the river or the wildlife near the river &ndash it&rsquos important that we make sure the river is as clean as possible,&rdquo Quinn said.

There will even be the possibility of river races, as once won by former Tarzan &ndash the late Johnny Weissmuller, Quinn said.

&ldquoFrom the mouth of Lake Michigan all the way to Wolf Point, and someday soon we want to have that swimming again, and maybe the Olympic rowing trials &ndash something like that,&rdquo Quinn said.

The city&rsquos view of the river has changed dramatically over the years. Executive director Margaret Frisbie says when Friends of the Chicago River started in 1979, the river didn’t have many friends.

Rather, it was something between an industrial drain and open sewer, she said.

&ldquoWe look at how people love the Charles River in Boston &ndash there&rsquos people around it all the time &ndash when we look at New York City and the work they&rsquore doing on the Hudson it&rsquos in process, it&rsquos not built all at once. It&rsquos step-by-step,&rdquo Frisbie said. &ldquoBut we&rsquore doing it in Chicago. The Chicago Riverwalk is a step. When they opened that Riverwalk, literally, the first day, there was a press conference, and under the bridge came someone walking a dog, someone else pushing a stroller.&rdquo

Last year, the EPA demanded that parts of the river be clean enough for &ldquorecreation in and on the water,&rdquo which means activities from swimming to canoeing. The order applies to all three branches of the Chicago River, as well as the North Shore Channel, the Cal-Sag Channel and the Little Calumet River.

But estimates put the cleanup cost at $425 million, which will likely mean higher sewer bills in Chicago and suburban Cook County, where such bills are among the nation&rsquos lowest, according to published reports.

The Chicago River system runs 156 miles, and is the waterway that first drew explorers to the area. French explorers Louis Jolliet and the Rev. Jacques Marquette explored the Chicago River in 1673, and Jean-Baptiste Point du Sable, the first permanent settler in Chicago, set up his farm on the north banks of the river in the 1780s.

But for longer than anyone has been alive today, the river has been associated with sewage and stink. In 1900, the Sanitary District of Chicago reversed the flow of the Chicago River, after sewage emptying into Lake Michigan from the river&rsquos main branch caused a public health crisis.

For most of the century afterward, the river was widely regarded as dirty and stinky, but beautification efforts have improved some parts of the river in the past 20 years.

Chicago is the only major city in the United States that does not disinfect human and industrial waste in the sewers before it ends up in the waterways, according to published reports.


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