California is the only state in the country with a human right to water enshrined in law that guarantees affordable access to water. Virginia could soon become the second state. On January 26, the Virginia House of Delegates approved House Joint Resolution 538 that recognizes “access to clean, potable, and affordable water is a necessary human right.”

There is a growing movement to guarantee a universal right to water. In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly explicitly recognized the human right to water and sanitation and acknowledged that clean drinking water and sanitation are essential to the realization of all human rights. Notably, the United States was not a signatory to this declaration and argued that “a right to water” does not exists under international human rights law. Advocates in the U.S. have increasingly turned to state law to make the case for universal access to water rights.

California became the first state in the country to legislatively recognize the human right to water when Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 685 in 2012. Since then, numerous state policies have been enacted to implement the letter and intent of the law, including a $1.4 billion commitment over 11 years signed by Gov. Gavin Newsome in 2019 on ensuring safe, clean, and affordable water for all residents of the state.

The text of the proposed Virginia law goes beyond California’s as it not only recognizes water access as a human right, but also requires the state to prioritize domestic consumption of water over commercial and industrial uses, mitigate the impact of climate change on freshwater resources, and ensure water service disconnections do not impact the vulnerable populations.

Additionally, the bill requires the state to set up a statewide water affordability program to ensure that every household can afford to pay its water, wastewater, and stormwater bills based on the household's income. This is a smart move by legislators and advocates as it skips over a few steps that California spent years on. California’s human right to water act did not include an affordability program, so Assembly Bill 401 was adopted in October 2015 that required the State Water Board to design a state-run residential water affordability program, the first such in the nation. In February 2020, the State Water Board and UCLA released recommendations for implementing such a program. A proposed bill in the California legislature seeks to establish the Water Affordability Assistance Fund in the State Treasury to support this program.

The benefit of not being the first one is that you can learn from the leader, compress the learning curve, and see quicker results. California has spent much of the last decade setting up the framework for implementing human right to water. By becoming the second state, Virginia could advance the ideals espoused by the growing movement to recognize the inalienable right to water access, yet quickly set up a governance structure to implement it in an efficient way.

HJ 538 now moves to the Senate, where it needs approval before the last day of the legislative session on February 11.

-Sri Vedachalam
Director of Water, Environmental Policy Innovation Center