11 Oct 2012

Water, human rights and government failure

I wrote a paper on a human right to water several years ago,* in which I made the point (using data!) that laws supporting a human right to water are unlikely to work in countries where the rule of law is weak.**

But what about places where the rule of law means something? What about in California, where Governor Brown just signed AB 685 into law? AB 685 was drafted into law as a "do something" response to the problems to the poor quality water that communities in the southern Central Valley were facing. These communities -- mostly poor, mostly migrant -- are in the middle of California's "industrial ag" belt, and their groundwater was contaminated by runoff/seepage from cowshit generated at large-scale dairies (Happy cows! California #1!) and from excess pesticide/fertilizer applied at big farms.***

Although AB 685 sounds good, it actually does nothing concrete. It merely espouses a nice idea that will only be implemented if convenient. Here, in fact, is the entire addition to the State's water code [pdf]:
SECTION 1. Section 106.3 is added to the Water Code, to read:
106.3. (a) It is hereby declared to be 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.
(b) All relevant state agencies, including the department, the state board, and the State Department of Public Health, shall consider this state policy when revising, adopting, or establishing policies, regulations, and grant criteria when those policies, regulations, and criteria are pertinent to the uses of water described in this section.
(c) This section does not expand any obligation of the state to provide water or to require the expenditure of additional resources to develop water infrastructure beyond the obligations that may exist pursuant to subdivision (b).
(d) This section shall not apply to water supplies for new development.
(e) The implementation of this section shall not infringe on the rights or responsibilities of any public water system.
Although sections (a) and (b) sound good, sections (c-e) seem to create giant loopholes (I still cannot understand what "beyond the obligations that may exist pursuant to subdivision (b)" means).

So, I see this bill as a non-solution to a problem that needs to be addressed by:
  • Reducing pollution from agriculture; and
  • Requiring farmers whose pollution has damaged groundwater to pay for substitute water supplies to communities with "impaired" water supplies or pay for the relocation of the people in those communities (polluter pays).
Without a doubt, this ridiculous bill is a failure because it shifts the costs of a problem caused by agriculture onto public water agencies, giving us yet another example of how farmers representing less than 3 percent of California's population, economy and workforce screw over the other 97 percent of Californians.****

So, that's the most recent development in the ongoing, worthless "discourses" in water policy -- a human right to water -- and another example of how politicians totally screw up policy present empty promises as "solutions."

If you're interested in hearing more of my thoughts on this topic, challenging those thoughts, or adding your own ideas and impressions, then tune into tomorrow's webinar on Chapter 11 of my book (A human right to water), here at 9am Pacific (get the time in your location and test your Flash installation).

Bottom Line: Words are nice, but deeds matter. The easiest way to get deeds is to create an incentive to act, and fine words from activists to politicians are hollow unless those politicians (and their bureaucratic minions) must deliver results.

* I submitted the paper to Water Resources Management in August 2011, but they failed to find referees for it after one year. I withdrew it last week. FAIL.

** I go on to suggest that a property right in water is more likely to result in water service to the poor, since they will be able to convert their rights into money, and money DOES flow towards those who can pay.

*** I asked a representative of one of those counties about the "cowshit plume" in groundwater about eight years ago. She changed the subject to their LEED-certified office building. They were either too afraid of or owned by dairy farmers.

**** This pattern holds in many countries, with the noble exceptions of New Zealand and Australia.

H/T to KH


Sander van der Heijden said...

Good points and instructive paper. A few questions: are local public water agencies (and partnerships) in the US incompetent or powerless in creating incentive acts against (local) farmers and do you think something (the law, different cultural policy approach, budget distribution) has to be changed to make this possible? Does it start with a centralized strategy and what would that starting point be?
What would happen if the right to water would be changed in an obligation to deliver reliable drinkwater? Is this as even useless as the 685 bill?

Sander van der Heijden said...

I also tried to look for an ex post effect evaluation of the Cal. Water Code § 10 which, according to Mr. Lucas Quass, Associate at Best Best & Krieger LLP, may merely be a duplicate of the 685 bill but as you said: Bretson and Hill research says enough.

David Zetland said...

@Sander -- local water agencies cannot take water from farmers. Farmers CAN be punished for pollution if the water quality control boards wish. It's not power, per se, but the will to exercise it in the face of farmers' political power.

Any obligation carries costs, so a right to delivered water would have to be funded.

Carol Steinfeld said...

"Water as a human right" has always seemed a silly pursuit, usually promoted by those who won't admit they can't wrap their minds around the complexities and strategies for providing clean water to more people. This legislation does nothing for the communities with nitrate-contaminated wells. I'll take that back if I see this addition to law serving as a policy that leverages new ag and other processes less likely to pollute water. I appreciate that people think the world tours by UN Special Rapporteure for water, Catarina de Albuquerque, mean something, but I suspect they absorb bandwith that is better employed to discuss and deploy solutions.

Thomas Woodall said...

This particular part of this section bothers me: "This section does not expand any obligation of the state to provide water or to require the expenditure of additional resources to develop water." On the first paragraph, it says that they recognize the right of the people for safe water and such, but go on contradict ways of improving the water system with this part of the paragraph. Conflicting and confusing. Back home, we are already availing ourselves of water purification perth to ensure that we have safe water. With the increasing number of environmental pollutants, I don't know how long we can deal with our system of purifying drinking water.

The Pasadena Pundit said...

David it seems your mixing apples with oranges and farm water issues with non-farm issues.

Some illegal trailer parks have apparently sprouted up in rural areas that violate the Subdivision Map Act requirement to have a source of potable water. These trailer parks are not migrant farm laborers from what I understand.

A grant of Federal money was used in one encampment to build a water treatment plant. But the beneficiaries could not afford to pay the property tax assessment to operate the treatment plant. So using Zetland terms: Gummint FAIL.

It would seem to me that politicians are trying to go about the problem the wrong way. Instead of banning illegal housing encampments that violate the Subdivision Map Act they are providing an incentive system for scofflaws to build shanty towns that have to rely on buying bottled water. Providing more grant money for water treatment plants that the residents of these encampments can't afford is not a solution.

David Zetland said...

@PP -- I agree. That's a government screw up (which is why I think that human right to water laws are misdirected. That said, I STILL think that farmers need to clean up the pollution they cause. Common sense :)

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