In summary

California has a history of treating public water as a commodity and entrusting it to corporate interests that fail to manage it responsibly. Its congressional delegation should co-sponsor the federal Water Act that would change this.

By Alexandra Nagy, Special to CalMatters

Alexandra Nagy is the California director for Food & Water Watch, anagy@fwwatch.org.

California has a long history of treating public water as a commodity instead of a human right and entrusting it to industries that fail to manage it responsibly. Water is a public trust resource that needs protection. The federal Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity and Reliability (WATER) Act would put water systems back in the hands of the people who depend on it for life and livelihood.

This bill would set aside $35 billion annually to shore up drinking and wastewater systems. It would ensure no one lacks access to water because they can’t afford it. With a federal budget reconciliation package in the works, S. 611 needs the support of Californians and our lawmakers. U.S. Sens. Alex Padilla and Dianne Feinstein and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, all Democrats, must co-sponsor this critical legislation and shepherd it into law. 

The WATER Act will support public control of water systems and guard against catastrophic water shortages by prioritizing investments in historically marginalized communities, ensuring that water is safe, affordable and accessible.

When we need water most, corporate interests are gulping our water at astonishing rates. 

Three-quarters of California is in extreme drought, which the National Integrated Drought System points to as inadequate for “agriculture, wildlife and urban needs.” Most counties in California are under drought emergency declarations and the state’s northernmost counties are already facing restrictions on personal and agricultural water use. A million Californians lack access to clean drinking water. 

Desalination plants, such as the one Poseidon Water plans to install five miles from Huntington Beach’s Bolsa Chica wetlands, take in enormous amounts of seawater to produce a minimal amount of freshwater. They require enormous amounts of energy and prohibitively raise the price of local water for disadvantaged communities. If water truly is a human right, as codified by the Legislature, it should be available and affordable for everyone. 

Oil and gas drilling diverts water from communities that need it, polluting what is returned to the ground. During the three years of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s term, the industry has used more than 2 billion gallons of freshwater — enough to supply the city of Ventura for nearly one year. Water used by the oil and gas industry exceeds the state’s recommended daily household water usage in drought of 55 gallons per person per day.

Mega-dairies and other concentrated animal feeding operations suck up 142 million gallons of water every day to maintain livestock and clean their industrial-scale facilities. Central Valley counties have the highest concentration of mega-dairies and rank among the highest in the state for social vulnerability — a rating the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention use to measure how well a community can withstand stressors like pollution or water scarcity without serious negative consequences to public health. Like oil drilling, industrial dairies strain communities already under water stress. 

California is a parched landscape where age-old tensions between corporate interests and collective responsibility play out. The WATER Act will restore the federal government’s commitment to safe public water and substantially improve access to drinking water.

If we couple the WATER Act with state-legislated substantive checks on the expansion of those industries, it will protect our vulnerable communities. 

Water should never be for sale to the highest bidder. Reach out to U.S. Sens. Padilla and Feinstein and Speaker Pelosi. Tell them to co-sponsor the WATER Act.

We want to hear from you

Want to submit a guest commentary or reaction to an article we wrote? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact CalMatters with any commentary questions: commentary@calmatters.org .