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McGeorge’s Online Water and Environmental Law Program Helps Fight for a Human Right to Water in California

Environmental Law Program

In California, over one million people do not have access to safe, affordable, and reliable drinking water. Many small water systems and domestic wells are unable to meet safety standards under federal and state drinking water laws, and this problem disproportionately affects Latino, rural, and low-income communities. Two-thirds of the communities that suffer from drinking water insecurity or entire lack of drinking water are disadvantaged communities that have an annual median household income less than 80% of the statewide annual median. In many of these communities, the taps run dry, and where water runs, the water is toxic. Additionally, some California residents spend more than five times the affordable rate for water. 

Students in McGeorge’s online Water & Environmental Law program learn about the multiple causes of California’s failure to ensure safe and reliable water many of which are linked to histories of overt or systemic racism: discriminatory housing policies, land use exclusion, settlements proximate to the only available jobs. As a result of these factors, communities around California that are served by small water systems and domestic wells lack funding, infrastructure, and governance to meet clean water standards. An additional driver of drinking water failure stems from agricultural runoff and large-scale pumping proximate to shallow domestic wells, resulting in water quality and supply problems in groundwater basins.   

Legal Frameworks to Address the Challenges 

The Water & Environmental Law curriculum addresses the complex legal frameworks for establishing access to safe and reliable water. The California Constitution’s requirement that all water use must be reasonable is relevant, as are provisions of the Water Code that elevate human rights to drinking water. The Water Code declares that domestic use is the highest use of water, although enforcement of that application has been limited over the decades. Additionally, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act of 2014 is part of the legal framework. This Act requires local agencies to develop sustainability plans that consider drinking water for disadvantaged communities.  

It’s notable that in 2012 California was the first state in the U.S. to legislatively recognize a human right to water. Assembly Bill (AB) 685 recognized the right of all people to safe, affordable, accessible, and reliable water. The international community recognized such a right much earlier, and this recognition was due in substantial part to the work of McGeorge professor Steve McCaffrey, who was named the 2017 Stockholm Water Laureate for his contributions. California’s human right to water law establishes a basic right to water, and it directs state agencies to consider the right to water—but nonetheless, additional legislation is clearly needed. California’s law does not require the state to provide water or to spend money, nor does the law affect the responsibilities of any public water system. 

Funding to Support Access and Infrastructure

Ultimately, the resolution of drinking water problems in disadvantaged communities requires access to water service and to infrastructure like treatment and storage. Small water systems need funding, and they need institutional arrangements to provide economies of scale for capital investments, operation, maintenance, repair, and management. Over the last few years California has enacted new laws that provide such funding and that provide the state with the authority to encourage or require consolidation of small water systems to put such funding to good use. 

One example of a successful funding strategy is SB 200, which the California legislature passed in 2019. SB 200, known as the Safe Drinking Water Fund, allocates revenue from the state’s cap-and-trade program to drinking water improvements for disadvantaged communities. The state combines that funding with additional money and regulatory tools via The Safe and Affordable Funding for Equity and Resilience (SAFER) program. The state conducts ongoing needs assessments that establish priorities for further investment.

Making a Difference

Ongoing work on the human right to water provides opportunities for people to make a real difference. The Water & Environmental Law courses at McGeorge focus on these issues and help students identify practical paths for becoming part of the solution. There is significant need for new voices in this field, and there is significant opportunity for change.

McGeorge’s Water & Environmental Law Program

McGeorge offers two fully online part-time programs in Water & Environmental Law:

  • The Master of Science in Law (MSL) is designed for land use planners, engineers, environmental consultants, public information officers, lobbyists, public agency and legislative staff, and others who seek expertise in this continually-evolving field but do not require a law degree.
  • The Master of Laws (LLM) is for attorneys, recent law school graduates, or foreign-educated legal professionals to develop depth of knowledge in a specialized area of environmental, water resources, regulatory compliance, and public agency law.

Students build marketable expertise with the guidance of expert faculty chosen for outstanding teaching as well as depth of knowledge in water and environmental law. In our water and environmental law program, our courses emphasize real-world knowledge and development of practical skills. 

The programs are convenient and are specifically designed for students and professionals who need flexibility due to work, professional, or other obligations and who want to further their education and advance their career. 

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