Matheny Tract (MT) is an unincorporated community located outside the city of Tulare, California which has its drinking water contaminated with arsenic and other chemicals. Approximately one-third of its residents live in poverty. MT is not an isolated example, as hundreds of poor and mostly Latino rural communities in the Central Valley have substandard drinking water. MT’s drinking water is also threatened by its aging septic tanks. The terrible irony is that residents have to pay for their water twice, once for the undrinkable out of the tap well water and again for the drinkable bottled water.
But MT is becoming an important testing ground for ‘human right to water’ laws. California is the first state to declare the human right to ”safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water.” Governor Jerry Brown has signed The Human Right To Water bill which sets a positive direction for water policy in California. The legislation mandates that all state agencies must consider the human right to water for any new regulations and grant programs.
MT is the first community to receive water under Senate Bill No.88 (drafted under the Human Right to Water Bill) and which gives the state authority to oversee cities integrating their water systems with their unincorporated neighbors. This means MT will receive its water from the city of Tulare. An identical law has been introduced into Michigan but is still in the committee stage.
The drought has exposed the degree of water inequality that exists in California’s rural communities. There have been a number of contributing factors to the problems which exist in the Central Valley. The physical problems include the abundance of naturally occurring arsenic, as well as nitrates from fertilizers and animal waste which leach into the groundwater and cause contamination. Other factors are socio-political. For example, residents of the unincorporated communities are not entitled to vote in city elections due to their falling under county jurisdiction. Because counties are generally not in the water business they are not required to provide their communities with water.
With the failure of governments to be able to secure clean and safe drinking water for people, the human rights banner may be the vehicle for defining future rights in this area.