California Board Proposes Fertilizer Tax to Combat Groundwater Contamination

On February 20, California’s Water Resources Control Board released a sweeping report to the state Legislature aimed at cleaning up drinking water contamination caused by nitrates used in agriculture.

Chief among the water board’s 15 recommendations is a fee on fertilizers, considered the major source of nitrate contamination. The report also recommends a point-of-sale fee on agricultural products and a water-use fee. The new fees would be used to offset the cost of building water systems in communities affected by nitrate-tainted drinking water.

The report’s most critical recommendation is to create funding to “ensure all Californians, including those in [disadvantaged communities], have access to safe drinking water.”

“There just isn’t a stable, long-term funding source,” said Jonathan Bishop, chief deputy director of the water resources board in an interview with the Fresno Bee.

The water board’s report comes on the heels of a study on nitrate contamination published last March by the University of California at Davis. According to the UC Davis study, nearly 10 percent of the 2.6 million people living in the Tulare Lake Basin and Salinas Valley might be drinking nitrate-contaminated water. If nothing is done to stem the problem, the report warned, those at risk for health and financial problems may number nearly 80 percent by 2050.

High levels of nitrates in drinking water have been linked to a potentially fatal blood disorder called “blue baby syndrome,” reproductive disorders and cancer. Enacting fees on fertilizers was one of the suggestions made in the UC Davis report. Read FERN’s coverage of the report here.

While clean water advocates praised the report, reaction from the agriculture industry has so far been muted. In an interview in the Monterey Herald, Monterey County Farm Bureau Executive Director Norm Groot said additional fees and regulations would burden what he called a “struggling” industry. Local farmers, said Groot, had been “bracing” for a fertilizer fee. “I doubt ag can afford another tax,” he told the Herald.

Western Growers, an agriculture trade association, said while it supports some of the water board’s recommendations, the fee on fertilizers and point-of-sale fee were among those that “cause serious concern.”

“[T]he level of effort and vast expansion of programs this report has outlined will require a substantial increase in funds,” wrote Dave Puglia, Western Growers vice president for government affairs and communications, in a statement.

Meanwhile, lawmakers in the Democrat-controlled Legislature have introduced nine bills aimed at tackling the state’s drinking water crisis.