We shouldn’t have to choose between clean air and clean water for our children

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Allegheny National Forest
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An Op-Ed by Joe Salas, San Bernardino High School educator

I’ve been a teacher for 14 years and watched many students journey from their first day through their senior year. Recently, I attended the graduation for San Bernardino High School seniors. This is one of my favorite days of the year. It is the culmination of everything the school community has worked for; seeing the scholars walking across the stage brings me great joy.  

It’s also a reminder that we must continue to do everything we can to ensure that our students can focus on learning while at school and not have to worry about their health.

I learned recently that 400 schools in California have lead contamination in their drinking water. Adding to this, about 300 public water systems in our state are not in compliance with drinking water standards. Shockingly, nearly 1 million people in California lack access to safe, clean, and affordable drinking water. 

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Locally, there are schools that have reported finding lead levels at more than 5 parts per billion in their drinking water system – including San Gorgonio and San Andreas High Schools. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, this is five times the level that should require action.

It is troubling that children – are using water fountains and washing their hands in contaminated water. This crisis must be fixed now.

Recently, leaders in Sacramento passed the state budget that includes funding for drinking water repairs. I’m grateful to see this progress and applaud these efforts.

I am, however, worried about the long-term sustainability of this funding. Last week, Governor Newsom signed a law that will establish the Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund. For the next ten years, the funding for this initiative will come out of the state’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund. That’s concerning, because it will take away resources meant to help communities deal with the impacts of climate change.

That is a false choice. We can and should pay for both mitigation of climate change impacts and repair our drinking water systems. To put it simply, students at SBHS – and millions of Californians dealing with pollution should not have to choose between having clean air and clean water.

There is a more permanent solution out there. Earlier this year, legislators authored a bill to address this problem for the long-haul by establishing a fund for making repairs to California’s drinking water systems. This legislation would charge the State Water Board with identifying the extent of the state’s drinking water problem and funding unique solutions based on the needs of each community.

This is a sustainable approach to tackling the drinking water crisis. It is also a way to make sure that local communities are heard in this process. And, rather than using money meant to clean up our air, lawmakers proposed paying for the repairs by imposing fees on polluters who contaminate our water. That is only fair.

As a teacher, I’m especially appreciative of this approach. At a time when schools are grappling with budget cuts we can’t add these costs to the issues that we’re dealing with. I hope that legislators in Sacramento will continue pushing for this permanent solution.

When I think back to our recent graduation, I’m reminded of how hard our students work to succeed. Worrying about lead in the school drinking fountain shouldn’t be on the list of things that either parents or students have to deal with.

Let’s make sure that when the next class of learners starts on their journey, we have a permanent and long-term solution established to ensure safe drinking water without compromising on air quality.

Joe Salas is a teacher at San Bernardino High School and a resident of Claremont.

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