California lawmakers took a step toward restructuring water rights hearings throughout the state last week when Assembly Bill 313, introduced by Assemblyman Adam Gray (D-Merced), overwhelmingly passed the Assembly, moving the bill which aims to fix the state’s broken water management structure closer to becoming law.
“Anyone who deals with California water knows the system is broken,” said Gray following the vote. “Today’s vote sends a clear message that we realize it’s time to get to work, starting with restoring the fairness our water rights holders expect and deserve.”
According to Gray, state agencies often treat water rights issues unfairly and act with unchecked power. AB 313 proposes to restructure water rights hearings, creating a new Water Rights Division in the Office of Administrative Hearings to handle all water rights matters, removing conflicts of interest and built-in biases in the current system.
“The current system isn’t just inadequate – it’s imbalanced,” said Gray. “This bill begins a critically necessary reform of the state’s water management, removing inherent biases and conflicts of interest.”
Currently, the State Water Resources Control Board exercises quasi-judicial authority to hold water rights hearings, writing regulations, initiating enforcement actions and conducting 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,” said Gray. “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 bill’s newly-formed Water Rights Division, administrative law judges would preside over water rights matters. This would include conducting hearings and making recommendations to the Executive Director of the SWRCB which may then be accepted, rejected or modified, ensuring objectivity while still allowing state water agency experts to give input. This will provide a neutral body for hearings regarding complicated and often controversial issues.
“State agencies aren’t supposed to have unchecked power. They shouldn’t be able to act with impunity and little accountability to the public,” said Gray. “Creating a level playing field, as this bill does, ensures water rights holders receive the same due process and objectivity that our justice system promises everyone – nothing more, nothing less.”
The Turlock Irrigation District works closely with the SWRCB, and TID Director Michael Frantz welcomes the potential reorganization of the Board.
“I think it makes sense for a different body to review and ultimately decide than the initial passing body. I like the aspect of breaking it into two so you have a true appeals process,” said Frantz. “I think it’s always appropriate in government to have a multiple-bodied appeal process.”
AB 313 previously passed through the Assembly policy and fiscal committees without a single “no” vote, and passed the California Assembly with an initial 55-0 vote. The bill will now move to the Senate, where it will be considered in the coming weeks.