What’s most important to sustaining human life? Arguably it’s water. In fact, the United Nations recognized the human right “to safe and clean drinking water” through a resolution in 2010.
California law recognizes the right, too—sort of. The state requires water systems to provide a “reliable and adequate supply of pure, wholesome, potable, and healthy water,” but some residents of rural areas in the San Joaquin Valley, where high poverty rates abound, must pay up to 20 percent of their income for drinkable water. In the unincorporated town of Lanare, for example, residents pay $54 per month for tap water that is contaminated with nitrates (which have been linked to cancer and blue-baby syndrome), arsenic, and other toxic substances, forcing them—at least those who can pay—to spend an additional $35 per month for bottled water. In contrast, the residents of nearby Riverdale, a larger town, will build a new $5.4 million arsenic water treatment plant after passing a bond issue and obtaining a $500,000 grant from the state.
The struggle for safe water isn’t limited to California. Although the federal Safe Water Drinking Act requires most water providers to meet drinking water standards, funding realities dictate that access to safe drinking water too often depends on a community’s wealth . Most states have taken over enforcement of the Safe Drinking Water Act but, unlike under the Clean Water Act, which deals primarily with discharge of pollutants into surface water, states don’t get much federal funding to help meet drinking water standards. This lack of funding at every level complicates enforcement efforts.
This reality may be shifting in California, where California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), using a combination of litigation and legislative advocacy, has changed the legal landscape when it comes to low-income residents’ access to safe water.
California implements the federal Safe Drinking Water Act through its Health & Safety Code, which requires the Department of Public Health to develop a Safe Drinking Water Plan every five years. In recognition of gaps in the knowledge and enforcement capacity of the state’s myriad small water systems, the plan focuses on analyzing the water quality and service of water systems with fewer than 10,000 connections. But it’s been nearly 20 years since the Department obeyed the statutory mandate and submitted a plan—decades during which many rural Californians have been drinking water laced with arsenic.
CRLA sued on behalf of residents of the San Joaquin Valley and a grassroots organization, La Asociación de Gente Unida por el Agua (the AGUA Coalition), asking the court to order the California Department of Public Health to prepare the required plan. After an appellate court reversed a dismissal of the suit (Newton-Enloe v. Horton) in April, the parties settled the case in November. The department will submit a Safe Drinking Water Plan—a detailed five-year implementation plan—within three years of the settlement. And, most important to CRLA, the department must comply with the state statute and investigate the water quality and service of water systems throughout the state with fewer than 10,000 service connections. In doing so, the department must report on and take into consideration, and attach as an appendix to the plan, any data that CRLA collects on small water systems.
On the legislative front, CRLA and other advocates helped achieve passage of a package of seven drinking water bills that, among other things, provide grants to small communities to upgrade their water systems and create a revolving fund to make “severely disadvantaged communities” (median household income less than 60 percent of the statewide average) eligible for grants covering the full costs of water treatment projects.
This advocacy dovetails with the earlier visit of Caterina de Albuquerque, the Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation, at the invitation of the U.S. government. Between February 22 and March 4, de Albuquerque undertook a fact-finding mission with stops in Washington, Boston, Sacramento, and to the Winnemem Wintu in northern California; she issued a formal report in August contending that “States’ obligation with regard to the right to safe drinking water and sanitation requires that water and sanitation be available, accessible, affordable, acceptable and of good quality for everyone without discrimination.” She noted that “existing federal laws generally focus on maintaining water quality rather than ensuring access for all citizens.”
While federal progress toward a right to water seems unlikely at the moment, as CRLA has shown, changes may be possible at the state level. For more on CRLA’s fight to give low-income residents access to safe drinking water, see Furthering the Fight to Make Clean Water a Right in California, in Clearinghouse Review’s September-October 2011 issue, Human Rights: A New (and Old) Way to Secure Justice.
For more information on homelessness and the right to water and sanitation see, Toward a Human Rights Framework in Homelessness Advocacy: Bringing Clients Face-to-Face with the United Nations, by Mona Tawatao and Colin Bailey and Opening the Door to the Human Right to Housing: The Universal Periodic Review and Strategic Federal Advocacy for a Rights-Based Approach to Housing, by Eric Tars and Déononné Bhattarai in the same publication.
This blog post was coauthored by Kathleen Donahue McNally.