California water: a human right or private property?

Water drive in Porterville, CA. During the drought, farmers pump with deeper wells and the residential wells run dry due to over-pumping of groundwater. PHOTO/CHIEKO HARA

Water drive in Porterville, CA. During the drought, farmers pump with deeper wells and the residential wells run dry due to over-pumping of groundwater.

MERCED, CA — Despite California having the first law in the U.S. declaring water a human right, the situation is growing worse as the state enters the 5th year of drought. And it is the worst for the most vulnerable, the largely Latino farm laborers and their families in the predominantly agricultural Central Valley of California.

In 2012 Governor Brown enacted AB 685 into law, declaring the right to clean drinking water an inalienable human right.  Prior to this in March, 2011, United Nations representative Catarina de Albuquerque visited Seville, California to evaluate the community’s water system. She found that many families in Tulare County spend more than 10 percent of their income on tap and bottled water because the tap water is contaminated with nitrates from agricultural fertilizers, septic systems and dairy farms.

Nitrates are known to cause serious injury to newborns by interfering with the ability of their red blood cells to carry oxygen, a condition called Methemoglobinemia, or blue baby syndrome. In addition, nitrates are implicated in various cancers.  Nitrates are concentrated in declining underground water tables, the primary source of drinking water in California, as farmers drill deeper wells due to the drought.

To make matters worse, in Tulare County, the Board of Supervisors recently voted to allow the unrestricted drilling of deep wells, despite the opposition of the AGUA Coalition (Asociación de Gente Unida por el Agua) and others. This is certain to aggravate the dire situation of farm worker communities such as Monson, CA, whose wells have run dry, while across the street there are lush green orchards that many of them harvest.

According to the Environmental Justice Coalition for Clean Water, these communities pay the highest water rates in the state for drinking water and grey water that is used for showering, dish washing, etc. If they complain, they are promptly silenced as happened in a Fresno County Supervisors meeting. A spokesperson for farm workers protesting rising water rates was told to “shut up and sit down” as Board Chairperson Buddy Mendes did not want to hear from “left wing environmentalists.” (Fresno Bee, 4/14/15).

Increasingly, water is pumped from underground water tables in California and around the country and sold by private bottling interests such as Saveway Bottling in Merced, California (Merced SunStar 4/16/15). In Weed, California, in the foothills of Mt. Shasta, the local lumber company has told the city to look for another water source, as bottling water for sale by Crystal Geyser Alpine Spring is very profitable (New York Times, 10/2/16).

Clearly, water is not being dealt with as a human right in Tulare County, nor in the cities of Merced and Weed. We are all affected by unrestricted pumping and increased water contamination for short-term gain and profit.

It is time to stand by the most vulnerable and demand an equitable water system that serves and protects all of us and our fragile environment.

For more in depth analysis of California’s water situation read “The Politics of Water and the Drought in California”, available at

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