Library of Congress

Law Library of Congress

The Library of Congress > Law Library > News & Events > Global Legal Monitor

United Nations; United States: California Water Rights Law Lauded

(Oct. 3, 2012) On September 25, 2012, the state of California issued a new law on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation. (Assembly Bill 685 (Sept. 25, 2012), OFFICIAL CALIFORNIA LEGISLATIVE INFORMATION.) Governor Jerry Brown announced that he had signed the bill on the same day. (Press Release, Office of Governor Edmund G. Brown Jr., Governor Brown Issues Legislative Update (Sept. 25, 2012)). Catarina de Albuquerque, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human right to water, praised the legislation, stating that when she heard of its adoption “my thoughts immediately went to those people I met last year in California who still do not benefit from this fundamental human right.” (California Law on Human Right to Water Sets Example for Others – UN Expert, UN NEWS CENTRE (Sept. 28, 2012).)

The bill amends the California Water Code (California Water Code (last visited Oct. 1, 2012)), adding section 106.3. It states that it is “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.” (Assembly Bill 685, supra.) It also provides in subdivision (b) that state agencies must consider that provision when taking actions “revising, adopting, or establishing policies, regulations, and grant criteria” if those steps “are pertinent to the uses of water described in this section.” (Id.) The bill does qualify the new rights, by stating:

(c) This section does not expand any obligation of the state to provide water or to require the expenditure of additional resources to develop water infrastructure beyond the obligations that may exist pursuant to subdivision (b);

(d) This section shall not apply to water supplies for new development; [and]

(e) The implementation of this section shall not infringe on the rights or responsibilities of any public water system. (Id.)

The U.N. Special Rapporteur had visited California, seeing several areas in which people did not have good access to clean water and meeting with the bill’s sponsor, Assembly Member Mike Eng. She noted “the tragic stories of farm-worker women in Seville, in the San Joaquin Valley, who were condemned to drinking the water from their polluted wells because they did not have the money to purchase bottled water,” and added, “I recall the crying women who told me that they were devoting about 20 per cent of their $14,000 per year income to water and sanitation. I am also thinking about the indigenous people of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe, whose lack of water and adequate sanitation was appalling.” (California Law on Human Right to Water Sets Example for Others – UN Expert, supra.)

The Special Rapporteur is an independent expert, working in an unpaid capacity for the U.N. Human Rights Council. (Id.) She said that following the adoption by California of a comprehensive water rights law, the next step would be to develop policies for the water sector, and she offered her assistance to the state for such an undertaking. (Id.)

Water rights are a special concern of the United Nations; in July 2010 the General Assembly adopted a resolution stating that it is a basic human right to have access to potable drinking water. (Press Release, General Assembly, GA 10967, General Assembly Adopts Resolution Recognizing Access to Clean Water, Sanitation as Human Right, by Recorded Vote of 122 in Favour, None Against, 41 Abstentions (July 28, 2010); Cynthia Miley, UN Rights Expert Welcomes California Safe Drinking Water Law, PAPER CHASE NEWSBURST (Sept. 30, 2012).)

A similar bill had been passed in California in 2009, but it was vetoed by the then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who cited the likely high cost of the legislation. (Miley, supra; Bill Number: AB 1242 (vetoed Oct. 12, 2009) [veto message of Governor Schwarzenegger], OFFICIAL CALIFORNIA LEGISLATIVE INFORMATION.)