An Aug. 3 Times editorial begins: “As California water becomes an increasingly precious and contentious resource, the state needs an umpire with the power to enforce laws against illegal diversions and protect the rights of the public and others…”
I could not agree more, but the Times then goes on to say the status quo is good enough and that good-governance legislation to fundamentally improve the process is unnecessary.
My bill, AB313, restores integrity lacking in California’s water rights enforcement. Because the same government agency acts as judge, jury and prosecution, water rights holders lack access to a neutral appeals process and feel coerced into accepting unfair outcomes. The process is like letting pitchers call their own balls and strikes. It is inherently biased.
What if our courts operated in the same way? The police department would investigate you, arrest you, argue against you as the District Attorney, and decide your fate as the judge in court. How can you expect to be innocent until proven guilty if the judge decided you were guilty before the case had ever begun?
My bill restores balance by empowering trained and neutral administrative law judges to conduct hearings and make recommendations on how to proceed based on the facts of each case. Rather than delaying the process, dedicating a neutral administrative body increases efficiencies in resolving these disputes. In the past, the State Water Board has blamed its cumbersome hearing requirements for causing backlogs and suggested the need for a more expedited review process.
The Times claims these judges would have “no particular expertise in water law” and would be “without a staff of engineers, scientists and water experts at their ready disposal.”
This is just factually incorrect. My bill explicitly requires these judges to have no less than eight years of water rights experience – a higher threshold than is even required to be appointed to the Water Board itself – and to have expert witnesses on hand.
The Times goes on to claim that the current process must be good enough since the Water Board has operated this way for years and there are other state agencies that use a similar process. Both quintessential logical fallacies.
Just this year, the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown saw through similar arguments from the Board of Equalization and implemented a new structure utilizing administrative law judges as neutral hearing officers. Sound familiar?
Both Democrats and Republicans have supported AB313, because due process is not a partisan issue. My bill is not a cure-all for California’s water wars. However, it is certainly a necessary reform that will ultimately improve the management of our state’s most precious and contentious resource.
Adam Gray of Merced represents California’s 21st Assembly District, including Merced and part of Stanislaus counties