Water Reform Bill One Step Closer to Becoming Law

Sacramento, CA (April 27, 2017) – Legislation restoring fairness to water rights holders across California is one step closer to becoming law. Assembly Bill 313, a major reform introduced by Assemblyman Adam Gray (D- Merced) passed through its first committee on Tuesday. The Assembly Committee on Water, Parks and Wildlife voted 13-0 (with two abstentions) to send AB 313 onto the next step. Byron-Bethany Irrigation District (BBID) provided technical support in crafting the bill, which provides fixes to California’s broken water management system.

“On behalf of the District, I commend Assemblyman Gray for showing the visionary leadership to tackle this critical issue that impacts communities across the state,” said BBID Board President Russell Kagehiro. “As BBID itself has experienced, state agencies wield unchecked power that prevents all water rights holders from being treated fairly.”

AB 313 proposes to restructure water rights hearings, creating a new Water Rights Division in the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH). The State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) currently exercises quasi- judicial authority to hold water rights hearings. The SWRCB writes regulations, initiates enforcement actions, and conducts hearings in which the Board staff act as prosecutors and the SWRCB itself acts as the judge and jury. At Tuesday’s Committee hearing, BBID GM Rick Gilmore provided testimony in strong support.

“The current system inappropriately grants blanket power over water rights to the State Water Board, and creates inherent biases that make impartiality an impossibility,” Gilmore said. “We need neutral parties to intervene in these complicated matters to ensure fairness above all else.”

Administrative law judges would preside over water rights matters in the legislation’s newly-created Water Rights Division. The Division would conduct hearings and make recommendations to the Executive Director of the SWRCB that the Executive Director could accept, reject, or modify. The new structure ensures objectivity, while still providing state water agency experts the forum to give input.

AB 313 was amended from its original form, which initially included more sweeping reforms to California’s water management structure. After Tuesday’s vote, the latest, streamlined version now moves to the Assembly Committee on Appropriations, which will consider the bill in the coming weeks.

“AB 313 isn’t a fix-all for what ails California water management,” Gilmore said, “but thanks to Assemblyman Gray, it’s a significant step in the right direction.”

Solutions Proposed to Fix State Water Management

Sacramento, CA (February 6, 2017) – New legislation introduced Monday by Assemblyman Adam C. Gray (D-Merced) would make sweeping, necessary changes to California’s water management. Assembly Bill 313 seeks to fix the state’s broken water rights system, removing critical conflicts of interest that improperly allow state agencies to act as prosecution, judge and jury.

“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 (SWRCB) 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.

AB 313 would revamp the state’s water rights administration and enforcement, as well as the State Water Project. It would transfer the existing authority of the SWRCB over water rights to the Department of Water Resources (DWR), which has expertise and is better structured to handle water rights matters.

“The current system allows the State Water Board to conduct water rights hearings in which Board staff act as prosecutors, presenting a case to Board members who act as the judge, in a court the Board runs themselves,” Gilmore said. “This unchecked power prevents water right holders across the state from being fairly treated.”

Under AB 313, enforcement proceedings would be conducted by a neutral third party, in the form of a newly-created Water Rights Division under the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH). A new State Water Project Authority would assume DWR’s current authority and water rights for the State Water project, eliminating the potential conflict of DWR administering and enforcing water rights, while possessing water rights of its own.

Though the current model of California water governance has gone largely unchanged since 1969, experts warn improvements are necessary to meet the needs of the future. A 2010 report from the Little Hoover Commission, Managing for Change: Modernizing California’s Water Governance, urged legislators in no uncertain terms to restructure the system that “…leaves the state ill-positioned for the challenge of managing its water resources.”