SAN JOSE — A fight against the fluoridation of Watsonville’s water supply landed in a state appellate court Tuesday.
Watsonville is asking the Sixth District Court of Appeals to overturn a 2004 ruling by Santa Cruz County Superior Court Judge Robert Atack that said state law requiring the addition of the tooth decay-fighting chemical trumps the wishes of local voters.
The case has been closely watched by fluoridation foes and backers alike, and the appeals court decision will set a precedent for the entire state. A ruling is expected within 90 days.
Beyond the hot-button issue of fluoridation, some say, is the issue of state vs. local control.
“This will show whether … cities have any power in this state whatsoever,” said Maureen Jones of the antifluoride group Citizens for Safe Drinking Water.
The conflict is between an initiative, passed by Watsonville voters in 2002, that didn’t specifically name fluoride but in practical terms banned the chemical, and a state law that mandates fluoridation in cities with 10,000 or more water hookups if funding is available.
The California Dental Association Foundation, which asked the appellate court to uphold Atack’s judgment, has agreed to give the city $1 million to install a fluoridation system and operate it for one year.
City Attorney Alan Smith contends that since state law allows voters in other types of water districts, such as some special districts, to decide whether to fluoridate, it can’t ban city voters from making similar decisions.
“It’s almost like equal protection,” Smith told the three-judge panel Tuesday.
But Smith was sharply questioned by judges, and at least one seemed leery of his contention.
“The state law is clearly black and white,” said Judge Franklin Elia. “The state has preempted (the city)… and that’s the end of it.”
Smith cautioned against reading too much into the judge’s remarks, which he said are part of the questioning process designed to illuminate the issues.
Health professionals widely support fluoridation, particularly in low-income communities like Watsonville where children may not have access to regular dental care. The Centers for Disease Control has rated fluoridation among the top 10 public health achievements of the 20th century.
But Watsonville’s appeal is being considered as decades-long opposition to the practice gains new momentum. Earlier this year, questions emerged about a study linking the risk of a rare form of bone cancer in boys to fluoridated water, and a union representing federal EPA scientists asked for a congressional probe into the practice.
Santa Cruz is among the dozens of California communities that do not add fluoride to water supplies.