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Turning Law into Reality

April 1, 2015

California’s Human Right to Water Act

This article was originally published in the Winter/Spring 2015 issue of Rights Now.

When California Governor Jerry Brown signed the Human Right to Water Act in September 2012, the victory was historic. But what good is a law without effective implementation? Over the past two years, UUSC has been partnering with local grassroots organizations in California that are leading the way to turn words into action — and systemic change is under way.

The work of a broad coalition, including UUSC, to help make the Human Right to Water Act (A.B. 685) an on-the-ground reality is building on a strong foundation developed during years-long efforts to pass the law. UUSC continues to work closely with the lead organizations in this work: the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water (EJCW), the UU Justice Ministry of California (UUJMCA), and other members of the Safe Water Alliance, of which UUSC is a founding member.

Before showcasing ways that the law is creating change, let’s look at what it actually says: “It is hereby declared to be the established policy of the state that every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking, and sanitary purposes.” The law continues: “All relevant state agencies, including the department, the state board, and the State Department of Public Health, shall consider this state policy when revising, adopting, or establishing policies, regulations, and grant criteria when those policies, regulations, and criteria are pertinent to the uses of water described in this section.” 

A few ways this law is already changing policy and practice:

  • The 2014 funding bill (A.B. 1471) for a statewide water plan includes $520 million designated to “improve water quality or help provide clean, safe, and reliable drinking water to all Californians.”
  • The Department of Water Resources has formed an environmental justice caucus and proposed a study on California residents whose water access is insufficient.
  • The State Water Board has formed an internal working group to implement the law.
  • SEIU, the union of engineers and other workers at the State Water Board, is developing a curriculum about the law and training more than 1,000 workers.

UUSC and partners have also helped produce several tools to raise awareness and put the law into action. First is the film Thirsty for Justice: The Struggle for the Human Right to Water, which was chosen as an official selection for 2015 Wild & Scenic Film Festival. (Watch the trailer above or at ejcw.org/thirsty.) EJCW and UUJMCA used the film to train 200 workers at the Department of Water Resources on the importance of the law to various California communities that have been denied water access.

UUSC also provided technical input into a U.N. handbook on implementing the human right to water, available at righttowater.info/handbook. The California Research Bureau is researching this handbook as well as other resources for best practices and reporting to the California governor, agencies, and state legislature on key next steps.

One highlight of the U.N. handbook is guidance on water shutoffs, which — as seen in Detroit, Mich. — strip thousands of people across the United States of their human right to water. Water affordability and discrimination are central to UUSC’s water work moving forward, and UUSC is partnering with a number of institutions to undertake research on the subject in several states.

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