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CA’s Promise of a Human Right to Water Is Still Broken



Shutterstock photo of a little girl drinking water
At least 346 community water systems in California fail to meet drinking water standards, and the health risk is greatest in communities of color. (Shutterstock)
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Ten years ago, Californians impacted by unsafe and unaffordable water secured legal recognition of the human right to water. Since then, activists have leveraged California’s vital water law to promote safe, affordable, and accessible water for all. But we are still far from achieving its intended purpose.

Jenny Rempel portait

Jenny Rempel

Kristin Dobbin portrait

Kristin Dobbin

Special to CalMatters


More than 1 million Californians still face water insecurity caused by ongoing contamination, high water rates, and groundwater well failures, among other challenges. When the state Legislature reconvenes next week, it is time to make good on the decade-old promise under Assembly Bill 685.

As with many symbolic declarations, some viewed California’s human right to water law as inconsequential because its strongest demand is that state agencies “consider” that every human being is guaranteed safe, affordable, and accessible water. 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 inequities, water justice advocates are continuing to demand better.

With regard to safety, drinking water investments in underserved communities have substantially increased since 2012. Through one-time investments like water bonds and ongoing commitments like the Safe and Affordable Funding for Equity and Resilience program, California has made a down payment on drinking water infrastructure and planning. But these investments are far from the estimated $10.3 billion needed to fully address the drinking water needs in low-income communities over the next five years.

State tracking tools created to monitor progress toward the human right water law confirm how far we have to go. At least 346 community water systems are failing to meet 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 the human right to water due to structural challenges created by political decisions and historical disinvestment.

The Water Affordability Challenge Grows

State agencies have helped with bottled and hauled water deliveries to communities in need, but long-term, sustainable solutions like water treatment will take longer to realize. California must expedite lasting solutions with the care and urgency that toxic tap water demands.

While water safety has received significant state attention in the past decade, affordability challenges are growing. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Newsom administration and the Legislature halted water shutoffs and provided relief for unpaid water bill debt, but those crucial programs have ended. To address skyrocketing water rates, advocates proposed and the Legislature passed what would have been the country’s first statewide low-income water rate assistance program, but Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed the bill.

All Californians are not yet guaranteed basic notification and payment plan protections before having their residential water shut off, which advocates hope to address through Senate Bill 3.

Additional gaps are growing with respect to water accessibility. 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.

Vanishing Aquifer Leaves Communities Without Water

During California’s continuing megadrought, thousands of families have experienced complete household water loss. More than 1,400 dry domestic wells have been reported this year alone, with substantial numbers in the Central Valley. Plummeting groundwater tables have even left entire communities without water.

As climate change accelerates longstanding water inequities, California needs to proactively ensure drinking water access. Despite failing to act last year, the Legislature could build on Newsom’s emergency drought regulation to provide more oversight over groundwater well drilling. The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act also holds the potential to move California toward drought resiliency if fully implemented.

From investments in low-income communities to water shutoff protections and local drought response planning, there’s no doubt that water advocates and state leaders have accomplished a lot 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.

About the Authors

Jenny Rempel is a doctoral student in the UC Berkeley Energy & Resources Group and is a board member at the Visalia-based Community Water Center. Dr. Kristin Dobbin is an assistant professor of cooperative extension in the UC Berkeley Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management. They wrote this for CalMatters.

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