California Catches the Green Amendment Wave

A group of NRDC staff holding protest signs that read "Protect people not polluters"

Ian Tuttle for NRDC

Californians know that clean water and clean air are a basic human right and know all too well that these rights aren’t enjoyed equally. It’s time then, that the right to a healthy environment is enshrined in California’s constitution, ensuring everyone is protected. That’s exactly what Assemblymember Bryan’s ACA 16 aims to do. If passed by the legislature, voters will get to decide whether the following is added to the constitution: 

The people shall have a right to clean air and water and a healthy environment.

A mountainous landscape with a river and rocky pathway in the foreground

Little Lakes Valley in the Sierra Mountains


Dan Carlin

This addition to the constitution would create the highest level of legal protection for public health and the environment. Placed in Article I of the constitution, the right would be on par with other fundamental rights like the right to free speech and freedom of religion. This amendment would be a useful tool to protect public health and the environment and to hold parties accountable when they infringe on the right. However, we do recommend that the proposed language is changed to include language that ensures it is self-executing. 

The amendment would be an especially powerful tool for protecting low-income communities and communities of color, as these communities suffer from the cumulative impacts of multiple environmental harms, are often subjected to the highest levels of air pollution and water contamination, and too often fall through the cracks of California’s existing environmental protections. 

A sea otter floating on its back in Morro Bay, California.
A sea otter floating on its back in Moro Bay, California.
Credit: Gregory 'Slobirdr' Smith via Flickr, CC BY-SA 4.0

New Yorkers passed a similar amendment in 2021, and groups in Pennsylvania and Montana have successfully used those states’ environmental rights amendments to protect residents from air and water pollution. In 2012, California enacted a policy stating that “every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking, and sanitary purposes.” While the 2012 right to water is a policy and so doesn’t provide the same high level of protection a constitutional amendment would, it has helped move the state towards safe, clean and affordable water for all.

California is often viewed as a leader when it comes to environmental protection, but something is clearly broken: nearly 2.5 million people are served by failing or at-risk water systems in the state, and over 90 percent of Californians breathe unhealthy air. Lack of enforcement is a long-standing problem, and citizens must be able to enforce their right to a healthy environment when the state fails to protect it. Californians deserve clean air, water, and soil, and the legislature should let voters decide whether to add the green amendment to the constitution.  

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