From Flint to Standing Rock to California’s Salinas Valley, Water is a Human Right
Everyone has a right to safe, clean, affordable drinking water. And the news this week means we’re going to have to shout it from the rooftops. Water is life. Water is a human right.
One of Donald Trump’s first actions as president was to issue an executive order to violate the water rights of the Standing Rock Sioux and advance the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. In the words of Jamil Dakwar, director of the ACLU’s Human Rights Program, the executive order is “a slap in the face to Native Americans and a blatant disregard for the rights to their land.” The controversial pipeline could destroy ancestral burial grounds and poison the water supply for a sovereign nation — as well as millions of Americans downstream who rely on the Missouri River.
In Flint, Michigan this week, environmental officials announced that the levels of lead in the water system no longer exceed the federal limit. However, folks in Flint still have to use filters because lead levels could fluctuate in their homes as pipe replacement continues. This after over 1,000 days without clean drinking water. The ACLU of Michigan is still working diligently to investigate this crisis and hold the responsible parties accountable.
The right to water is also acutely important for rural communities in California who currently lack access to potable water and are forced to rely on bottled water to clean, cook, and bathe. In 2012, a UC Davis study found that nitrate contamination of groundwater poses a risk to one in 10 people living in the farm-rich Salinas and San Joaquin Valleys. The report estimated that 254,000 people in the Salinas Valley and Tulare Basin — primarily those who get their drinking water from private wells or small, one-well systems — are most at risk of nitrate contamination.
Thankfully, the policy landscape is changing in California. In 2013, the state fully recognized the right to water when it adopted AB 685, the Human Right to Water bill. In adopting the policy, California made an explicit commitment to improving water safety, quality, accessibility, and affordability for all Californians, at a time when drought impacts continue to disproportionately affect Central Valley residents.
Functionally, AB 685 means that all relevant state agencies must consider the human right to water when revising, adopting, or establishing policies, regulations, and grant criteria relevant to the uses of water. Both the State Water Resources Control Board and the Central Valley Regional Board made the decision in 2016 to officially recognize the Human Right to Water—a crucial step towards making the right a reality for all Californians.
This Thursday, January 26, the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board is preparing to do the same. The Central Coast Board is scheduled to take up a resolution, “Adopting the Human Right to Water as a Core Value and Directing its Implementation in Central Coast Water Board Programs and Activities.” If adopted, the resolution requires board staff to prepare an annual work plan that includes specific actions for implementing the human right to water. The work plan requirement will give advocates an opportunity to work with the board on the preparation of the plan and outline specific steps to achieve safe, accessible, and affordable drinking water for all Californians.
The resolution also directs board staff to consider affordability when implementing regulatory programs and conducting enforcement activities. Communities in the Salinas Valley with nitrate-contaminated water shouldn’t have to pay twice—paying for contaminated water from their tap and purchasing bottled water as an alternative.
Adoption of the Human Right to Water by the Central Valley Board recognizes the critical importance of water and makes unequivocal the state’s obligation to ensure that right for residents in the San Joaquin Valley. This crucial framework will go a long way towards allowing advocates and communities to stand on firm footing as they continue to demand change for residents who have often remained silenced or completely ignored. It is our hope that the same will be true for residents in the Salinas Valley.
In the coming months and years, we will need to use a diversity of tactics to protect access to safe, clean, and affordable water. In California, we’re glad to see our representatives agree—water is a human right.
Angélica Salceda is a Staff Attorney with the ACLU of Northern California. Kena Cador is an Equal Justice Works Fellow with the ACLU of Northern California.