UC Berkeley law students advise state on water affordability

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Students involved with UC Berkeley’s Environmental Law Clinic released a report Friday analyzing and providing recommendations on the State Water Resources Control Board’s proposal for the development of a water affordability program.

The proposal, titled the “Low-Income Water Rate Assistance Program,” aims to help low-income households access safe and affordable water. The Environmental Justice Coalition for Water, or EJCW, solicited the help of UC Berkeley Environmental Law Clinic to provide the state with an environmental perspective as it drafted its proposal.

Randy Reck, a staff attorney with EJCW, said in an email that the coalition believes all people have a right to safe, clean and affordable water because it is a “basic necessity” for life. In 2012, California became the first state to pass a human right to water policy into law, but according to Reck, no funding was provided specifically for its implementation.

According to Britton Schwartz — a clinical teaching fellow at the Environmental Law Clinic who advised and supervised the campus law students as they drafted their report — the clinic builds on the prior work of Berkeley Law’s International Human Rights Law Clinic. The clinic previously worked with the state to develop an implementation framework for the state’s commitment to the human right to water.

The concept of affordable water is difficult to put into practice, Schwartz said. In its proposal, the State Water Resources Control Board proposed four scenarios for affordable water reform, all of which included percentage discounts based on households’ poverty levels.

Student and advisors at the clinic, however, found fault with these four scenarios. In practice, Schwartz said, there is no singular solution for all cases of water inaccessibility, making a uniform discount difficult. According to Schwartz and her colleagues, the proposal must do more than reduce the price — it should vary depending on a household’s circumstances.

Although rebate programs exist — such as subsidies for low-pressure shower heads and “low-flow” toilets — they do not usually reach low-income households, according to Schwartz. As a solution to this problem, the Environmental Law Clinic is encouraging the state to provide economically disadvantaged families with assistance in fixing leaks and conserving water. According to Schwartz, the state’s job would become more complex because the approach requires checking in with the various households.

Schwartz added that organizations such as the East Bay Municipal Utility District “mean well” but cannot fully support low-income households.

The struggle for low-income households to pay for safe and accessible water increased with the recent California drought, Schwartz said. The drought intensified contamination, making water less safe and therefore requiring more expensive water treatments or transportation.

Reck noted that the drought “exacerbated” many of the water affordability challenges that disadvantaged communities face, although he added that many of those challenges pre-dated the drought.

“We, as Californians, need to resolve the human health impacts of water contamination and the disproportionate costs borne by low-income communities around the state,” Reck said in an email. “In order to make good on the promise of the human right to water, we have to provide the financial resources needed to build resilience.”

The Environmental Law Clinic will continue its water justice work this semester by designing a policy advocacy toolkit to help cities in the East Bay, such as Berkeley and Oakland, improve homeless residents’ access to water and sanitation, according to Schwartz.

“I think that it’s really exciting the role that Berkeley students have been able to play,” Schwartz said. “There are lots of places to engage in this type of work as students.”

Contact Ella Jensen at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ellajensen_dc.

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  • Chipmunk

    Let’s not go there. Let’s say, “The Google Community Water Treatment Plant” in Porterville; The Apple Community Treatment Plant in Helm; The Facebook Community Water Treatment Plant in Dinuba; The Amazon Community Water Treatment Plant in Lost Hills. Google-Apple-Facebook-Amazon GAFA.

  • FreedomFan

    Good plan: If you are an illegal alien, you get free water. If you are a farmer, you go bankrupt.

    • thomas lawrence

      Farmers already get cheap surface water; the major water projects provide very heavily subsidized water for them. If they have ground water under their land, they can just pump away.

      • Chipmunk

        1) U.S. federal law, the Swamp Land Act of 1850 essentially provided a mechanism for reverting title of federally owned swampland to states which would agree to drain the land and turn it to productive, agricultural use.
        2) The Reclamation Act of 1902 is a United States federal law that funded irrigation projects for the arid lands of 20 states in the American West. The act at first covered only 13 of the western states as Texas had no federal lands. Texas was added later by a special act passed in 1906. The act set aside money from sales of semi-arid public lands for the construction and maintenance of irrigation projects.
        3) The Central Valley Project is a federal water management project in the U.S. state of California under the supervision of the United States Bureau of Reclamation. It was devised in 1933 in order to provide irrigation and municipal water to much of California’s Central Valley—by regulating and storing water in reservoirs in the water-rich northern half of the state, and transporting it to the water-poor San Joaquin Valley and its surroundings by means of a series of canals, aqueducts and pump plants, some shared with the California State Water Project. Many CVP water users are represented by the Central Valley Project Water Association

  • Chipmunk

    “According to Schwartz, the state’s job would become more complex because the approach requires checking in with the various households”.
    This will frighten immigrants and enflame privacy advocates. Why not encourage community members in Mountain View, Atherton, Woodside, Pacific Heights and Beverly Hills to donate to affordable water projects in their names. They way folks do with hospitals. Rather than showering cash on wealthy politicians and social justice groups, they make direct investments in the communities they purport to advocate for?