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California’s AB 685: A Lighthouse for the Road Ahead

By Christine Ow

Is access to clean water a human right? This question might seem rhetorical but in reality, it is a highly contested dilemma that has academics, policymakers, and the United Nations throwing in their two cents. Over here in California, it would seem like policymakers have an answer, and it is that yes, clean water is a human right. This was signaled by the passing of Assembly Bill (AB) 685 back in 2012 by Governor Jerry Brown. Since then California has been looked upon as an example of how the human right to water can be integrated into policy and made into a reality. Nine years later, has the Bill lived up to the hype? In this article, we will be taking a deeper dive into AB 685, its impacts on the human right to water discourse, and the real influence it has had on Californians.

What is AB 685?

Access the Bill here: http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/pub/11-12/bill/asm/ab_0651-0700/ab_685_bill_20120925_chaptered.pdf

As mentioned previously, AB 685 was signed into California’s Water Code on September 25, 2012, and fully came into effect on January 1, 2013. The bill, while short in essence, can be seen as something akin to an amendment or a written commitment of the state to its residents that “every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking, and sanitary purposes”. More than a concrete policy, AB 685 is an articulation of principles for California’s water regulators to ensure that everyone has equitable access to clean water when establishing future policies.

This Bill is meaningful for California, in particular, because so many of its residents do not have access to clean and safe water. In fact, as of late 2020, up to one million Californians only had access to tainted drinking water which forced them to rely on alternative sources like bottled water. Moreover, most residents who do not have access to clean water tend to be rural, and people of color which further reinforces generations of environmental injustice. AB 685, therefore, is an explicit commitment by the state to right this wrong in future policies and spell hope for communities and activists who have spent years trying to convince the state to take action. 

Celebrating the passing and hopeful realization of AB 685 is important but so is the recognition that as with most policies, it has its drawbacks. For one, legal experts have pointed out that the wording in AB 685 is very vague. What does it mean to be “affordable”? What does it mean to be “adequate”? These terms have not been clearly defined in the Water Code nor AB 685, this leaves a lot of room for interpretation which could lead to a misalignment of expectations between activists, regulators, and residents. Additionally, the bill states that “This section does not… require the expenditure of additional resources to develop water infrastructure beyond the obligations that may exist pursuant to subdivision,” this seems to imply that the state is not expected to fix old and aging infrastructure that is contributing to the tainting of water for many communities. Finally, the Bill does nothing to provide protection to Californians who rely on unregulated water sources (systems that serve less than 25 persons or provide less than 15 connections), and the state is not liable in a Government Claims Suit or a suit under a traditional mandate. AB 685 is a progressive step towards clean water accessibility, however, like with any laws and regulations, it is flawed. 

Read more criticisms of AB 685 here: Feeding the World Has Left our Water Contaminated: Will California’s Human Right to Water Act Fix the Problem?

AB 685’s Role on the Human Right to Water Conversation

There has always been a discursive push and pull on what water is that has gone on for decades and something of a breakthrough came in 1992 at the International Conference on Water and the Environment in Dublin, Ireland. At the conference, members of the United Nations came to an agreement on how to characterize water which was subsequently listed in what is known as the Dublin Principles. To put it succinctly, the Dublin Principles acknowledged water as a “finite and vulnerable resource”, that is “a public good and has social and economic value in all its competing users”. The conclusion was that water was in fact a good, but the use of it as such had to be balanced with the human needs of water. While the Dublin Principles are not binding, some could say that it did set a concerning precedent to normalize the de-prioritization of water equity and water accessibility in favor of economic interests. 

Read the Dublin Principles here: https://www.gwp.org/contentassets/05190d0c938f47d1b254d6606ec6bb04/dublin-rio-principles.pdf 

In recent years, however, there has been pushing back on this status quo. As climate change has made scant water resources even more vulnerable, activists have gathered from all over the world lobbying their governments and international actors to acknowledge that water is indeed a human right. Notably, after the violent Cochabamba Water War in Bolivia, leaders have started to seriously consider the problems water privatization poses to the world’s most vulnerable populations. As such, in 2010 the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) passed a resolution that recognized access to clean and safe water as an independent human right.

How is AB 685 significant to this discourse? First, it is important to recognize that the UNGA’s resolution does not apply to the United States because the country is not a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Hence, to have a state mirror international standards of human rights with regards to water is an important protection for California’s vulnerable communities in a state that will likely see more severe water crises as climate change worsens. Second, if AB 685 is implemented successfully and is able to expand water access to disadvantaged communities in California (a state that is bigger than some countries) it will serve as an important case study that other countries and states can refer to when creating their own human rights to water laws. Eyes are on California to see if this is a policy experiment or an actual path for the future.

Has AB 685 Lived Up to Its Promises?

Something that is important to recognize when it comes to AB 685 is that it is a big policy shift, though it is not a binding law on it’s own, fulfilling its promises through reform will take a lot of time. On that front, commentators have noted that California has made significant progress in amending legislation, passing new laws, and consolidating the process of ensuring the human right to water is honored. One of the most significant achievements is the consolidation of responsibilities under the State Water Resources Control Board who will oversee future programs and initiatives. As mentioned earlier, the state also recently secured long-term funding for these reforms which was of major concern. Policy change is typically a long-term uphill battle, and the recent severity of droughts and fires in the state have distracted legislators from the issues of AB 685. To give credit where credit is due, California has made a lot of progress in legislation wise which gives hope for its future impacts.

However, the reality is since passing AB 685 the situation on the ground has not improved much. Since most change has occurred on the high levels of governance, the status quo of water inequity and vulnerability remains for many communities. Particularly, for those in rural areas that rely on smaller water systems or who live in unincorporated communities, clean water is still a big concern. Other communities that are vulnerable that have received less attention include California’s unhoused population and those who live in trailer parks. 

Simply put, throughout nine years a lot has happened to make AB 685 a reality, but experts, advocates, and policymakers acknowledge that more has to be done. We can be hopeful given that politicians have signaled that clean water is a problem of priority for California, however, the public will have to remain on their toes to keep their representatives accountable for their promises.

Conclusion

In summary, AB 685, California’s Human Right to Water Law is a monumental step forward. As climate change continues to ravage the state this number is set to rise until action is taken. While AB 685 is still a promise that is still very much in the progress of meeting its potential, it is a beacon of hope for Californians and the world that making water access a human right is a tangible future we can work towards. 

Citations

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