California Declares a Human Right to Water

Background

California Assembly Bill 685 (“Bill 685″), colloquially known as the Human Right to Water Bill, became effective on January 1, 2013.  Assemblyman Mike Eng’s bill provides every human being the “right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking, and sanitary purposes.” Bill 685 instills a public policy to create universal access to safe, clean, and affordable water, and consequently, creates a duty for administrative agencies involved in water policy that impact domestic water use to consider Bill 685. Prior to Bill 685, California Water Code Section 106 stated that domestic use of water was the highest use possible, and allocated irrigation as the second highest use. Further, the California Safe Drinking Water Act declared that every citizen has the right to pure and safe drinking water.

Significance of Bill 685

The proponents of Bill 685 assert that the bill will be instrumental in creating and nurturing a public policy of safe and clean water for human use. It is argued that the bill is necessary to address extremely high drinking water pollution in certain Californian communities as well as a complete lack of any available drinking water in other communities. In support of Bill 685, the Assembly explains that the bill does not create a right of action for customers to demand clean water because the “right to water” is only hortatory language directed at administrative state agencies that impact domestic water use, nor will it impact the allocation of existing water rights because they have already been allocated through the existing system of prior appropriation. The Assembly points out that Bill 685 only imposes a duty for administrative agencies to advance the implementation of the human right to water policy. One area that the Assembly anticipates Bill 685 will impact is the public water regulatory system because any regulations concerning public water systems or drinking water quality that impact the adequacy, affordability, and safety of domestic water will have to be analyzed under a Bill 685 lens.

Opponents of Bill 685 worry that it may lead to higher water bills overall if it is interpreted to preclude water agencies from shutting off service upon customer default, forcing other customers to subsidize the water service for the customers who cannot afford to pay. Opponents argue that this could have a devastating impact on water suppliers with large bases of low-income customers. These business impacts logically lead to a reduction in water suppliers throughout the state, or so some argue. Further arguments against Bill 685 assert that “affordable” is a dangerously ambiguous term and that the bill was unnecessary to begin with because existing state legislation ensured “pure and safe drinking water.” Despite the Assembly’s assurances, some fear that a human right to “safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water” could lead to litigation.

Conclusion

California Bill 685 attempts to begin the process of administrative cure for a devastating lack of healthy drinking water. Despite the laudable goals of Bill 685, many have been left wondering about some of the bill’s ambiguous terms, like the undefined “affordable,” and are concerned about potential litigation. Suffice to say, the ink is still drying on Bill 685 but many Californians are excited for its great potential to maintain a safe water infrastructure.


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