CALIFORNIA’S HUMAN RIGHT TO WATER LAW AT 10 YEARS: THE LIMITS OF NARRATIVE ASPIRATION AND POLICY INCREMENTALISM
Written by Max Gomberg1
California’s Human Right to Water Law (HRTW law), passed in 2012, marked the first successful state statute to define water as a human right and ushered in subsequent legal and policy actions that materially improved the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.2 The HRTW law itself, however, created no requirements for action and no local responsibility for its implementation.3 Rather, the law, like many human rights frameworks, is aspirational.4 The law uses universal language and includes a broad range of goal categories but does not include any language regarding transparency and accountability. As a result, there is no narrative foundation for understanding violations of the enumerated rights. This article examines the narrative and legal framework of human rights violation and assesses whether it could be applied to the HRTW law to accelerate its implementation.
BACKGROUND ON CALIFORNIA’S HUMAN RIGHT TO WATER LAW
Several international and California-specific reports from 2002-2012 laid the groundwork for the HRTW law. In 2002, the United Nations held the World Summit on Sustainable Development, which was a milestone in the lead up to the Sustainable Development Goals adopted in 2015.5 On July 28, 2010, the United Nations General Assembly adopted Resolution 64/292, recognizing a human right to water and sanitation.6 In California, both research and advocacy organizations were sounding the alarm about unsafe drinking water for residents living near agricultural and industrial contamination. Different organizations published reports about the impacts of nitrates in drinking water,7and the Community Water Center, an advocacy organization founded in 2006 began organizing residents in the San Joaquin Valley to advocate for safe drinking water solutions.8 Drawing from the international framework, California advocates drafted legislation that enumerated safe, accessible, and affordable water as human rights and directed relevant state government agencies to consider how to advance them in agency decisions, such as regulatory and funding actions.9