New York’s Constitutional Right to Water: A First Step
A constitutional amendment on this November’s ballot will allow New Yorkers to vote on amending the state’s constitution to include a right to clean air and water, stating, “Each person shall have a right to clean air and water, and a healthful environment.”
Because too many of us now live in an era of questionably safe drinking water, states like New York are taking steps to fix this problem. In February, the New York State Legislature took the final step to place a constitutional amendment on this November’s ballot to begin to address this issue. It will allow New Yorkers to vote on amending the state’s constitution to include a right to clean air and water, stating, “Each person shall have a right to clean air and water, and a healthful environment.” While this may seem like common sense—as we have seen in places like Flint, MI, Newark, NJ, Jackson, MS and Puerto Rico—safe drinking water, while necessary for life, is not guaranteed. Equally as important: when it comes to safe drinking water in America, the data show that race is a major factor and poor water quality disproportionately occurs in communities of color.
An enforceable constitutional amendment is one avenue to help level the playing field for those who don’t have access to safe, sufficient, or affordable drinking water. We know that simply declaring something does not make it a reality. This is the case in California where in 2012 it adopted a policy announcing a right to water saying, “every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking, and sanitary purposes.”
While this is a good first step, Californians are still a long way from taking a victory lap. The law essentially says that state agencies shall consider this right-to-safe-water policy moving forward, but it does not create or expand any “obligation of the state to provide water or to require the expenditure of additional resources to develop water infrastructure beyond the obligations that may exist….” Simply put, the law merely states that Californians should have the right to safe water. It says nothing about who will make sure that’s the reality nor does it provide any tools to make it happen.
New Yorkers have an opportunity to do better. To achieve this, voters would have to pass the amendment to their constitution and ensure this right is enforced. Strengthening the legal and policy mechanisms like adopting this constitutional amendment while creating measures for citizen accountability is a way to help those who need it most.
As we have seen time and again across the country, race matters when it comes to environmental injustices related to safe drinking water. A common thread in all the places that have been able to secure safe water is that the people in the affected communities spoke up and demanded change. For example, in Flint, everyday citizens, when faced with the failure of city, state, and federal agencies to protect them, united to force the government to do its job. And in Newark, the city has made progress. By raising the funds to fix the water system and replace every lead pipe in Newark, at no direct cost to residents, Newark’s democratically elected officials proved government could solve the problem when it is held accountable by the people and their concerns.
The history books are being written about how our country’s action, and inaction, is shaping our safe drinking water policy. One way to address it is to pass a constitutional amendment in New York.