As California and the San Joaquin Valley struggle to meet our water needs, the recent rains promise to bring some relief. Unfortunately, it is not enough to offset the multi-year drought, new groundwater regulations and the proposed permanent water take from our reservoirs by the State Water Resources Control Board. In the board’s own words, its actions will create a permanent “regulatory drought.”
Recently, 22 state legislators, representing both parties and the Central Valley, expressed their strong support for the federal decision to allow increased pumping in the Delta to take advantage of the surging storm runoff. This was a sensible, timely and appropriate decision.
Unfortunately, this approach to implementing water regulations is more the exception than the rule.
Last year, when the federal regulators directed that pumping increases were appropriate, California regulators disagreed. The resulting confusion cost farmers and our local economy millions as irrigation decisions had to be changed after planting had already occurred.
Far too much time is spent on debates between unelected appointees and civil servants. The system lacks the flexibility to move quickly.
Jurisdiction over our state’s water is spread among several state agencies and departments – one dealing with water accounting and planning, another water rights and quality, another ecosystem management, another infrastructure development, etc. The left hand never knows what the right hand is doing. We lose opportunities for projects and policies to work together while creating no-win situations for those trapped inside a nonsensical system.
Only within this bureaucratic maze do the State Water Board’s decisions make any sense. The water board claims it cannot use options other than taking our water for fish because ecosystem and habitat restoration, predator controls and decisions about storage and conveyance are tools hanging on n someone else’s tool belt.
In California, our system allows some regulatory bodies to act as the prosecutor, judge and jury. Unelected appointees and anonymous agency staff write the regulations then prosecute alleged violators in proceedings they conduct themselves. Worse, they are totally unaccountable to the public. Don’t like their decision? Tough.
This is not how policy, regulation and enforcement are supposed to work. If our police departments ran the same way, police officers would write the laws, arrest offenders, decide the charges, sit in judgment then punish the always guilty party.
Where are the checks and balances?
All of these issues were highlighted in a 2010 report from the Little Hoover Commission, titled “Managing for Change: Modernizing California’s Water Governance,” which urged the governor and legislature to modernize and restructure this antiquated system to improve transparency, oversight and accountability.
I have drafted legislation to do just that.
Assembly Bill 313 reforms the way California regulates our water and breaks up this monopoly of power and clear conflict of interest by unelected bureaucrats. The bill moves authority and enforcement over water rights away from the State Water Resources Control Board and houses it under the Department of Water Resources with enforcement proceedings conducted separately and independently by the Office of Administrative Hearings. The Department of Water Resources’ current authority and water rights underlying the State Water Project would be transferred to a new State Water Project Authority to eliminate any conflict of both possessing and enforcing water rights.
My purpose is not to eviscerate regulatory agencies but to restore accountability and flexibility to their actions.
This is a big change.
California’s water management structure has largely remained the same since 1969. But if the recent drought has taught us anything, it is that California’s ability to manage water and prepare for the future is woefully inadequate. Something needs to change. AB 313 is a step in the right direction.
As my bill moves through the legislative process, your input is welcome and your support is needed. Call or write to help turn this bill into a law.
Adam Gray represents the 21st Assembly District which includes Merced and part of Stanislaus counties.