Our View: Assembly speaker’s slap at Adam Gray hits region hard

Is the dismissal of Adam Gray from the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee the petty, vindictive, purely political maneuver it appears, or is there something deeper happening?

It took considerable political acumen for Gray, D-Merced, to push his Assembly Bill 1242 through its first successful committee vote last week. Basically, the bill anticipates the demands expected from the State Water Resources Control Board that more water be left in our three rivers – the Merced, Tuolumne and Stanislaus – for the benefit of fish and downstream users. AB 1242 would require the state to recognize any harm its decision does to our region – the birthplace of irrigated agriculture in the West – and take steps to mitigate that damage.

The bill passed by the bare minimum – eight votes on a 15-member committee – and now advances to the Natural Resources Committee.

But AB 1242 passed despite long odds, largely because at least two dozen people from our region cared enough to attend the vote and testify about its importance. Dozens of others submitted letters explaining the impact the state’s expected water grab will have on the region and its residents.

Gray orchestrated passage by helping committee members understand the very real impacts on very real people.

For instance, Assemblyman Jose Medina, D-Riverside, sits on Water but chairs the Higher Education Committee. When he heard the concerns of Merced County Superintendent of Schools Steven Gomes, Medina related.

When former county supervisor Bill Dodd, a Napa Democrat, heard from Stanislaus Supervisor Jim DeMartini and Merced Supervisor Hub Walsh about the state’s approach – calling the impacts “significant but unavoidable” – he could imagine his own county’s ag industry in a similar plight.

Assemblyman Anthony Rendon of Lakewood didn’t agree with the legislation, but felt it deserved a fair hearing – so he abstained rather than vote against it.

So the bill passed. Expect it to go no further.

Wednesday, the day after its passage, Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins summoned Gray to her office and dismissed him from the Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee.

Removing a sitting Assemblyman from the committee he specifically asked for and has served on since arriving in the Assembly is a dramatic and symbolic gesture. Such treatment is usually reserved for criminals. But Atkins went further. She also dismissed Sebastian Ridley-Thomas, D-Los Angeles, who had sided with Gray on AB 1242 in defiance of committee chair Marc Levine of San Rafael. Levine frequently supports environmental causes, and four bills passed out of committee over his objections.

Such behavior had to be punished. Dismissing two committee members served as a warning to others not to defy the speaker. That likely includes anyone planning to vote in favor of AB 1242 going forward.

Atkins is the former mayor of San Diego; she probably feels the Northern San Joaquin Valley is insignificant. Her office failed to return calls from The Bee’s reporter Thursday and the editorial writer Friday. We get it. But does she?

This isn’t about the drought; it’s about our future. Without the protections offered by Gray’s bill, the river water this region has always depended on – to drink, farm and replenish the groundwater – won’t be available. With the state’s recently passed rules on groundwater sustainability, people farming in the Merced, Turlock, Modesto, Oakdale and South San Joaquin irrigation districts will have far fewer crop choices. With less groundwater and less surface water, farming here will fundamentally change.

The purpose of AB 1242 was to require the state to recognize the importance of river water to maintaining our aquifers.

Over the past 140 years, the people of this valley have created one of the greatest gardens the world has ever seen. They dreamed it, engineered it, risked everything to build it and finally turned it into reality. Every step of the way, the state has been an enthusiastic cheerleader, though seldom a contributor. Without sufficient water to store, all the dams and canals will lose their worth.

If the state’s priorities have changed and it wants to redirect the water, it’s only fair the state should mitigate the damage.

Instead, Atkins’ clear message to Gray and others is that his bill will not pass. Toni Atkins isn’t just slapping Adam Gray’s face; she’s slapping the faces of virtually everyone in the region.