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State water management legislation moves forward

POSTED April 27, 2017 7:00 p.m.

A bill that would restructure California water management is one step closer to becoming law, as AB 313 was unanimously approved by the Assembly Committee on Water, Parks and Wildlife.

AB 313 would restructure water rights hearings, creating a new Water Rights Division in the Office of Administrative Hearings. Currently, the State Water Resources Control Board exercises quasi-judicial authority to hold water rights hearings.

“It’s time to bring some fairness back to the equation for California’s water rights holders,” said Assemblyman Adam Gray (D-Merced), who introduced the bill. “Time and again, we’ve seen state agencies act with unchecked power, with little accountability to the communities they’re supposed to serve. The current system isn’t just inadequate – it’s imbalanced. This bill begins a critically necessary reform of the state’s water management, removing inherent biases and conflicts of interest.”

The bill aims to curb the Water Resources Control Board’s unilateral power, as the agency currently writes regulations, initiates enforcement actions and conducts hearings in which Board staff act as prosecutors and the SWRCB itself acts as the judge and jury.

“The end result of the current system is like the State Water Board asking the State Water Board if it agrees with itself,” Gray said. “There’s a reason there are umpires in baseball: we need a neutral party to enforce water rights so everybody gets a fair shot.”

Under the legislation’s newly-created Water Rights Division, administrative law judges would preside over water rights matters. The new Division would conduct hearings and make a recommendation to the Executive Director of the SWRCB that the Executive Director can accept, reject or modify. The change ensures objectivity, while still allowing state water agency experts to give input.

AB 313 has already garnered support from area irrigation districts, like the Byron-Bethany district that serves parts of Alameda, Contra Costa, and San Joaquin counties. 

“BBID is proud to stand with Assemblyman Gray in support of AB 313,” said BBID GM Rick Gilmore. “The solutions outlined in the bill address some of the most pressing issues in California water, which the District faced first-hand.”

For the better part of a year, BBID fought to protect its pre-1914 water rights, on behalf of the district’s farmers and senior water rights holders across the state. A $5-million complaint brought by the State Water Resources Control Board alleged BBID diverted water when none was available. The case was dismissed by the SWRCB last June, citing lack of evidence. Following the case dismissal, BBID pledged to take an active leadership role in a collaborative effort to help solve the state’s water issues and bring clarity to California’s water rights.

“These changes won’t fix all that ails California water management, but we have to start somewhere – and the time is now,” Gray said.

The bill will next be considered by the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

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