Politics pollutes ‘water rights’ bill

Aug. 30, 2012

By Katy Grimes

SACRAMENTO — An interesting debate took place Wednesday in the Assembly over a bill granting California residents the “right” to clean drinking water.

Is clean drinking water a right? Can the state grant rights to its citizens?

California Democrats believe the state can grant rights, and are pushing the bill that declares “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.”

“More than 11.5 million Californians rely on water suppliers that faced at least one violation of State Drinking Water Standards,” according to Assemblyman Mike Eng, D-Alhambra, the author of AB 685. “As many as 8.5 million Californians rely on supplies that experienced more than five incidences of excessive levels of contaminants in the drinking water in a single year.”

The bill analysis states that, “in communities where the sole water supply is contaminated, families that are unable to afford treatment are often left entirely without safe water. The Central Valley and Central Coast regions, where more than 90 percent of the communities rely solely on groundwater, are particularly at risk. More than 250,000 people in the Central Valley alone lack access to a consistent source of safe, affordable water.”

Eng said that, because California does not have a universal statewide lifeline water
rate or allocation, when costs become excessive, families that cannot pay their bills risk losing water service entirely.

Is water a ‘right?’

“If the state can grant rights, it can also remove them,” Assemblywoman Linda Halderman, R-Fresno, said during floor debate on AB 685. “I’d rather think that my rights have origin endowed by my creator.”

However, Assemblywoman Diane Harkey, R-Dana Point, said that local water boards have the regional responsibility for clean, accessible water. “We have very capable water boards-the issue needs to be addressed by these water boards.”

Even the Association of California Water Agencies opposed AB 685: “ACWA believes the bill, though seemingly well intended, is unnecessary and duplicative. California Water Code Section 106, established in 1913, is already a fundamental cornerstone of the water rights system in this state. It declares that the use of water for domestic purposes is the highest use of water, and it would appear unnecessary to make any modification to further amplify this existing domestic preference policy.”

Harkey warned that creating a new “right to water” in California law will invite litigation. The ACWA also fears litigation, and: ACWA and others believe the bill could lead to extensive litigation to define what a ‘human right to water’ entails.”

“What about farmers, growers and ranchers?” asked Assemblywoman Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield. “They provide the groceries for us to eat everyday. What about their water rights?”

An inconvenient truth

“Think about it as state policy,” said Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael. “It’s an inconvenient truth that the state participates in infrastructure.”

Huffman lambasted the “entrenched special interests” he said were in opposition to the bill.

But Huffman also said that drinking water is a right, and not just state policy: “It is the right of everybody in California to have clean, affordable water.”

Democrats debating AB 685 showed real enthusiasm for offering this new right, but bristled when Republicans spoke of fundamental rights.

Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley said that, despite the rights the creator instilled, “clean water is an essential right.”

No water storage

“If you are voting for the bill, I hope you will be supportive of new storage facilities in the state,” said Assemblyman Bill Berryhill, R-Stockton.

Eng said that the United Nations sent a team out to California’s Central Valley to test the water. The UN team said that the Central Valley drinking water ranks with water in Third World countries. “California water is a disgrace,” Eng said.

Water bond

In 2014, voters will be faced with an $11 billion water bond. The bond was originally passed by the Legislature for placement on the 2010 ballot. It was removed for placement on the 2012 ballot. But with Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax increase initiative on the November ballot, Democrats decided to remove the water bond once again, and place it on the 2014 ballot, hoping voters will approve it:

The official summary of the bond states:

“To protect water quality and ensure safe, clean drinking water; meet the water supply needs of California residents, farms, businesses; expand water conservation and recycling; restore fish and wildlife habitat; reduce polluted runoff that contaminates rivers, streams, beaches, and bays; and protect the safety of water supplies threatened by earthquakes and other natural disasters; the State of California shall issue bonds totalling eleven billion one hundred forty million dollars ($11,140,000,000) paid from existing state funds subject to independent, annual audits, and citizen oversight.”

However, an appeals court ruled in 2011 that Attorney General Kamala Harris will need to rewrite the summary because it is so one-sided and misleading. The ruling prohibits lawmakers from “hijacking the ballot label, title and summary and turning them into another argument instead of an impartial voter guide,” said attorney Timothy Bittle of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which sued challenging the title of Proposition 1A, the water bond’s original number, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

Who grants rights?

“The state doesn’t have the right to grant rights,” Assmeblyman Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks, said. “We need to tread very carefully when we are about to codify into law a new right. I don’t see the authority–where does this elected body have the right to grant new rights?”

Donnelly asked how that “new right” would conflict with property rights. “Can officials come onto my property and take my clean water?”

The bill was passed on a party line vote, 44-28.

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