California Perpetuates Water Injustice

State legislation must pass to address negligence

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California currently fails to provide over 250 communities reliant on groundwater with clean, safe drinking water, leaving thousands of residents at risk of severe health issues. This isn’t from a lack of resources or ability — but negligence by the state.

The long-overdue solution finally surfaced in the form of Senate Bill (SB) 623, which would ensure all California residents are provided with access to clean water. California politicians have a duty to vote this bill into law. Not doing so would be a blatant violation of human rights.

Illustration by Ania Webb

SB 623 would expand clean water access to communities through a small household tax and a production-based dairy and fertilizer mill tax. Dairies and fertilizer mills contribute significantly to groundwater pollution and imposing a penalty tax on them would help generate a necessary, annual fund of about $140 million to expand state regulation and improve water systems.

Not only does the bill seek to hold responsible parties financially accountable, it approaches the problem at its root — the state’s failure to take responsibility for drinkable groundwater.

Despite about 85 percent of Californians relying on groundwater for some portion of their water supply, the state has left most regulation to local municipalities. This policy is detrimental to unincorporated communities that lack the bureaucracy to regulate groundwater quality themselves.

Groundwater is especially susceptible to contamination and, as of 2013, 680 community water systems in the state rely on contaminated groundwater sources. This water is often treated for safe consumption, but communities unable to establish and pay for a purification process have contaminated water flowing out of their household faucets.

The U.N. recognizes clean water as a basic human right and a “prerequisite for the realization of other human rights.” Clean access water is an incontestable right, not a privilege. It must be treated as such.

When residents in these areas lack the resources to pay for purified water, such as bottled water, they have few options besides drinking and using unsafe water. Through SB 623, the state can finally remove this burden from those affected and provide all California residents with a resource they need.

Left unaddressed, these communities will continue to be exposed to contaminants such as arsenic, lead and nitrates in their water. These materials are linked to severe health issues including cancer, reduced mental functioning in children, nervous system decline and miscarriages.

The communities lacking clean water are scattered throughout the state — the majority of them are small, rural and unincorporated communities situated along the Central Coast and in the San Joaquin and Central valleys. These communities have high populations of Latinx individuals. This is clearly an issue of public health and choosing not to pass SB 623 would overtly deprioritize the health of marginalized communities.

If California wants to truly champion issues of equality and public health, it cannot continue to overlook communities without clean water. We must ensure every person in California can drink from their tap without worrying about the consequences it could have on their health.