California Water: No More Tadpoles, Please

On a recent trip to Burma's Shan State, I was taken to see a well that provided water for three different villages. Children covered with mud from the well run-off were trying desperately to obtain water for their families. It was a daunting task because only about a foot of water remained in the well and that water was filthy. The dearth was not a result of drought -- Shan State had gotten plenty of rain. It was simply because the authorities had not cared enough to provide adequate access and a well-functioning retrieval system. This problem, the villagers told me, has lasted for years.

California and Shan State have almost nothing in common... except for a failure by authorities to take seriously the need for citizens to have adequate access to clean, affordable water. I traveled to Tulare County, CA, this past February and spent a day with Maria Herrera, of the Community Water Center (CWC), based in Visalia. We spoke to community members in Seville, Cutler and East Orosi, CA; visited the federal Bureau of Reclamation Central Valley Project; and viewed farming and dairy operations throughout the region. Over the past five years more than 11.5 million people in California have been forced to rely on water that violated state drinking water standards. Residents in Seville described turning on their taps and having tadpoles spill out!

The UN Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water investigated this situation in 2011. Catarina de Albuquerque quoted reports by the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Department of Agriculture on contamination of drinking water supplies in ground water in Tulare County. Subsequently the University of California at Davis published a report on the impact that agricultural nitrates in drinking water have on human health -- impacts that include blue baby syndrome, skin disease and other serious illnesses. The Special Rapporteur concluded that residents in Tulare County spend upwards of ten percent of their income to purchase bottled water because their community wells are producing water unfit for human consumption. That might not be a surprise in a developing country like Burma but it ought to be a source of shame and embarrassment in the United States.

A number of years ago Maria Herrera and the CWC, along with the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, which I head, and other human rights, faith, environmental and justice organizations, formed a coalition, the Safe Water Alliance, to push for legislative change in water policy for California. In October, 2011, we celebrated when four out of five bills dealing with the human right to water were signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown. At the signing the Governor said: "The bills I have signed today will help ensure that every Californian has access to clean and safe sources of water. Protecting the water we drink is an absolutely crucial duty of state government."

But much as those bills helped, they were not enough, for the fifth bill, the most important, was not on the Governor's desk. AB 685 would require state agencies, whenever they exercise their administrative duties relevant to drinking water, to take significant steps toward achieving the right of every Californian to have safe, clean, affordable water, adequate for basic human needs. But AB 685 has been stalled in the State Senate Appropriations Committee since last year and this is the last week that Senate leaders can bring the bill to the floor before the end of the session.

Increasing demand for water, climate disruption, degradation and over-extraction of water resources -- all these developments challenge governments and the public to grapple with the urgent task of setting a realistic, humane water policy for the 21st century. Unfortunately, the "problems of tomorrow" have arrived far sooner than we thought they would.

Those villagers in Burma were not satisfied with the paucity and filth of their water and, with increasing democratization in Burma, they have begun to find their voices to demand a response from public officials. If my travels to eighty-two countries around the world have taught me anything, it is how fortunate we are in this country to be free to use our voices, just as Maria Herrera has, to articulate the public interest and hold authorities to account for meeting it.

In no country -- and least of all in the world's wealthiest -- should it be acceptable to send children to schools where they find water fountains shut down, bearing signs reading "unfit for human consumption." But that is exactly what has happened in California. The state is of course economically strapped but what is government's task -- its "crucial duty," to quote Governor Brown -- if not to insure that basic human needs are met? And what need could be more basic, more fundamental to life, than water? The Senate leadership in California must bring AB 685 to the floor this week for action.