California falling short on its human right to water law
California has improved its water policies around safety, access and affordability in response to a 2012 law establishing a human right to water. Much remains to be done to keep this promise to disadvantaged and water-limited communities.
Ten years ago, Californians affected by unsafe and unaffordable water secured legal recognition of the human right to water. Since then, activists have used California’s vital water law to promote safe, affordable and accessible water for all. But we are still far from reaching the intended goal.
More than 1 million Californians still face water insecurity caused by ongoing contamination, high water tables and failing groundwater wells, among other challenges. When the state legislature reconvenes next week, it’s time to make good on the decade-old promise under Assembly Bill 685.
As with many symbolic statements, some viewed the California Human Right to Water Act as irrelevant because its strongest requirement is that state agencies “consider” that every human being is guaranteed safe, clean water. affordable and accessible. But a closer look reveals that the law has helped shift the water policy landscape in California along three lines: safety, affordability and accessibility. In the face of persistent disparities, water justice advocates are continuing to demand better.
Related to security, drinking water investments in underserved communities have increased significantly since 2012. Through one-time investments like water bonds and ongoing commitments like secure and affordable financing for equity and sustainability, California has made a advance payment for drinking water infrastructure and planning. But these investments fall short of the estimated $10.3 billion needed to fully address drinking water needs in low-income communities over the next five years.
State tracking tools designed to monitor progress towards a human rights water law confirm how far we have to go. At least 346 community water systems are not meeting drinking water standards, and this health risk is unevenly distributed. Low-income communities and communities of color are more likely to be at risk or in violation of their human right to water due to structural challenges created by political decisions and historical disinvestment.
State agencies have helped with bottled and trucked water deliveries to communities in need, but long-term, sustainable solutions like water treatment will take more time to come to fruition. California must accelerate sustainable solutions with the care and urgency that toxic tap water requires.
While water security has received significant state attention in the past decade, affordability challenges are growing. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Newsom administration and the Legislature halted water shutoffs and offered relief for unpaid water bill debt, but those crucial programs have ended. To address high water rates, advocates proposed and the Legislature passed what would have been the first statewide low-income water rate assistance program, but Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed the bill.
All Californians are still not guaranteed basic protections of notice and a payment plan before residential water is shut off, which advocates hope to address through Senate Bill 3.
Additional gaps are growing regarding water access. New tools and incentives have helped 200 neighboring communities implement regional drinking water solutions in the form of water system partnerships, but more work is needed.
During California’s ongoing Mega Drought, thousands of families have experienced complete loss of domestic water. More than 1,400 dry domestic wells have been reported this year alone, with a significant number in the Central Valley. Falling groundwater tables have even left entire communities without water.
As climate change accelerates longstanding water inequities, California must proactively ensure access to drinking water. Despite failing to act last year, the Legislature could build on Newsom’s drought emergency regulation to provide more oversight on groundwater well drilling. The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act also has the potential to move California toward drought resilience if fully implemented.
From investing in low-income communities to protecting water shutoffs and local drought response planning, there’s no doubt that water advocates and state leaders have come a long way over the past 10 years. But until California fully delivers on its promise of the human right to water, it must remain a top priority.