Water bottle tax penalizes California's rural poor

Water bottle tax penalizes California's rural poor
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California legislators are considering a bill that could essentially force all Californians, including the state, to pay millions of dollars more for plastic bottled water or sodas.  

A nickel here, a nickel there—it wouldn't be much per bottle. But because there are so many plastic bottles, it’ll quickly add up to millions of dollars. Consumers will inevitably shoulder the costs, and legislators will inevitably blame corporate greed or environmental measures when confronted about it.

Higher-priced bottled water won’t affect average Californians much. Either they can afford not to think about the price hike, or they have access to safe tap water. It is our most vulnerable—roughly a million residents that depend on bottled water due to contaminated water—who will suffer. That’s one in forty Californians, predominantly people of color, unable to use their tap water to drink, cook or wash.

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We all know about the water problem in Flint, Michigan, and the recently announced program in Newark, New Jersey, to distribute bottled water to that city’s residents. But those two problem areas combined do not even begin to approach the problem of a million people in California unable to drink the water out of their faucets. 

If this is news to you, you’re not alone. After all, the scourge of filthy water isn’t affecting residents in Los Angeles, the Bay Area, Sacramento, Orange County or San Diego. Rather, it’s towns and small rural communities scattered throughout the San Joaquin Valley that are heavily affected; areas where people are fortunate if they can find work, full or part-time. 

Farmworkers earning $15,000 a year, caring for and harvesting the produce that feeds America, are hard-pressed to pay higher prices for a necessity of life. There is a certain dissonance in the fact that California, the first state to recognize the legal right of every human being to “safe, clean, affordable and accessible water,” is now determined to pass a law that will slap a higher price tag on a supposed human right. 

The state spends $4 million dollars a year providing drinking water in plastic bottles to 18,000 people in 51 communities. AB 792 will only increase that cost. What’s more, AB 792 contradicts Governor Gavin Newsom’s Safe Drinking Water Fund. SB 200, passed in July 2019, takes $130 million dollars originally intended for air purification efforts and applies the funds toward affordable and safe drinking water. 

Reasonable people can agree that failure to properly recycle and reuse single-use plastics are creating environmental problems everywhere. Plastic items like ubiquitous water bottles are an easy target. 

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Developing rules for comprehensive recycling definitely deserves strong consideration, but not with AB 792. Though even the bill’s staunchest critics can admit that its goals are admirable, mandating a 75 percent plastic bottle recyclability by 2030 is simply not feasible. The legislature needs to consider extending target timelines by several years so the industry can reach the goals. Some bottling companies can hit higher recycling targets now, but the industry as a whole cannot.

The California Hispanic Chambers of Commerce officially oppose AB 792. This is a bill with good intentions, but it ultimately penalizes low-income rural Californians who are already struggling with access to safe drinking water in a state that has ostensibly promised it as a legal right.

AB 792 sets “impractical goals that can’t be met,” says the Chamber’s CEO, Julian Canete. Charging a per-bottle fee is just another way to impose a de facto tax on consumers. Unintended consequences of more taxes on those that can least afford them is one of the burdens of this recycling bill.

Half of California’s 40 million residents make below the state’s median personal income of $60,000. In the San Joaquin Valley, the region that will be hardest hit by AB 792, “working about 200 days or 1,600 hours a year at $10 an hour, long-season and full-year farm workers can earn $15,000 to $20,000 a year,” according to Dr. Phillip Martin of UC-Davis. Compare that to the State Legislator salary of $100,000 a year, plus $192 per diem during sessions.

We cannot condone a bill that would inevitably fail at its stated environmental goals, that hurts an already-vulnerable population and that makes bottled water more expensive for the people who depend on it as their only safe source of water.

Raoul Lowery Contreras is the author of “The Mexican Border: Immigration, War and a Trillion Dollars in Trade” and “White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (Wasps) & Mexicans.” He is a former writer for the New American News Service of the New York Times Syndicate.