WATSONVILLE — Fluoride won’t be flowing from city taps — at least not in the foreseeable future.
Thursday, the California Dental Association Foundation announced it would not pay to install a water fluoridation system as the price tag escalated well beyond original estimates.
That effectively ended a decade of often bitter debate over the project aimed at improving the community’s oral health, though backers vow to continue the effort.
“I believe this eliminates the city of Watsonville from being forced to fluoridate city water,” said Councilman Daniel Dodge. “It’s dead.”
Under state law, jurisdictions with 10,000 or more water hookups must fluoridate if an outside entity provides funding.
But after the lowest bid for the project came in $1.2 million above the $1.6 million estimate, not including nearly $650,000 in additional programming and operation costs, the foundation bailed.
In an e-mail sent to the city Thursday, foundation leaders expressed regret at not being able to provide the grant due to the cost, but said they would continue to “work diligently” to identify funding.
Nick Bulaich and other foes have questioned the effectiveness and safety of fluoridation and see no reason for putting the additive in a community water supply. In 2002, the Watsonville resident spearheaded a voter-approved initiative to prohibit putting the chemical in city water, and has remained at the forefront of the fight.
Bulaich said if the foundation comes back, the City Council will have to vote again, giving opponents another chance at persuading them to reject an offer.
“I’m delighted,” Bulaich said. “It made my day.”
The Pajaro Valley Community Health Trust has been supporter from the beginning. Executive Director Kathleen King said the board hoped to improve oral health, particularly among children and the poor, who have limited access to dental care.
In 2001, nonprofit Dientes Community Dental Care reported screening more than 10,000 Watsonville school children during a three-year period, and 75 percent had untreated tooth decay. Nine years later, Salud Para La Gente, a nonprofit that provides both medical and dental care in Watsonville, found less than 10 percent of kindergartners at public schools in and around the city had what dentists considered healthy teeth.
“It’s disappointing,” King said. “But we’re not giving up. It’s not dead, just delayed.”
Juice-maker fluoride foe John Martinelli hopes backers will shift their focus to education, and that the health trust would take the lead. He said the effort could start with parents in the hospital maternity ward.
“This provides the community with an opportunity,” Martinelli said. “Dental hygiene and nutrition is the solution. Fluoride is not the silver bullet.”
City Manager Carlos Palacios said it was a shock “after all that effort, all that staff time, for it to just go away.” But he said given the years of controversy he felt a little relief as well “now that it’s behind us at this point.”
The city fought a legal battle against an order from state health officials to fluoridate. But appellate judges ruled state law trumped the local ordinance prohibiting fluoridation. The California Supreme Court refused to consider a request to overturn the decision, which set a statewide precedent.
According to city officials, Watsonville’s legal expenses for the litigation, as well as for work on the contract with the foundation and the 2002 voter initiative, came to $115,377.