FRESNO -- Gov. Jerry Brown's signing last week of 'The Human Right to Water Act' was cause for celebration for San Joaquín Valley residents who can't drink their tap water.
AB 685, sponsored by Assemblyman Mike Eng, makes it state policy that every person has access to safe, clean and affordable drinking water. The law requires state agencies -- like the Department of Water Resources, the State Water Resources Control Board, and the Department of Public Health -- to consider this position when making a water policy decision.
"Our voices are being heard," said María Herrera, community advocacy director for the Community Water Center. "It is no longer just up to us to advocate, it is the policy of our state. Agencies now have to consider our voices at the state level."
More than 326,700 Valley residents received water with levels of contamination over a legal limit in 2006, according to the water center. Many low-income residents spend up to 10 percent of their income on both tap water and bottled water.
The situation received international attention in March 2011 when the United Nation's Independent Expert on the Human Right to Water and Sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque, visited the tiny Tulare County community of Seville, where the tap water has high levels of bacteria and nitrates.
The UN visit revealed that some California residents live with third-world conditions -- and that shouldn't be the case, Eng said. Rather, he said, access to clean drinking water should be considered as much of a right as life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness.
"The right to water pretty much ranks up there," Eng said. "Because if you don't have water, your life isn't that good, you don't have much liberty, and you're not able to pursue happiness."
The bill does not require state agencies to implement the new state water policy, or compel agencies to spend money to build water infrastructure. But Herrera, of the water center, said the bill will form the basis of communities' ongoing efforts to secure clean, affordable drinking water.
"It's another tool for us," she said. "It's establishing the foundation."
Eng agreed the law will become an important instrument for communities advocating for potable water.
"It's something that everyone that feels they don't have access to water can bring to decision makers, and say, 'please consider that this is your requirement,'" he said. "It's adding a conscience clause to the democratic process."
In a statement issued last Friday, de Albuquerque, of the UN, said the passage of the law should serve as an inspiration to other states and countries.
"When I received the good news about the adoption of this bill, my thoughts immediately went to those people I met last year in California who still do not benefit from this fundamental human right," she said.
"This bill is a clear sign that bringing safe and affordable water to all in California is a political priority, which I warmly welcome. I am happy to congratulate the state of California for this historic step."
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