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Gray proposes legislation to overhaul state’s water management system

Assemblyman Adam Gray speaks with supporters at The Branding Iron in Merced on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016.
Assemblyman Adam Gray speaks with supporters at The Branding Iron in Merced on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016. akuhn@mercedsun-star.com

After five years of punishing drought and the state’s plan to allocate more irrigation water for fish, Assemblyman Adam Gray is rolling out newly proposed legislation to restructure the state’s water management to improve communication and simplify the network of power.

Gray, D-Merced, announced Assembly Bill 313 on Monday, saying the drought revealed how broken the state’s water management system is.

“Anyone who has tried to work with the state on water knows the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, conflicts of interest are the norm, and state agencies act as their own prosecution, judge and jury,” he said in a statement.

The State Water Resources Control Board writes regulations, enforces them and prosecutes offenders, causing conflicts of interest, said Adam Capper, a legislative assistant with Gray’s office.

“The way the state enforces water rights is like letting a pitcher call his own strikes and balls,” Gray said. “The state water board writes the regulations, initiates enforcement actions, and put folks on trial in a court they run themselves. Where is the umpire? Where are the checks and balances?”

Gray’s bill would restructure the administration and enforcement of water rights and the State Water Project. Water rights administration, water rights hearings and implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act would be moved from the State Water Resources Control Board. Instead, the Department of Water Resources would oversee SGMA and water rights administration, while the state Office of Administrative Hearings would handle water rights hearings and SGMA enforcement proceedings.

AB 313 would eliminate any conflict of interest in having the Department of Water Resources handling water rights by creating a new State Water Project Authority, reducing the burden on staff in the Department of Water Resources.

The bill was inspired by a 2010 report published by the Little Hoover Commission. The report, “Managing for Change: Modernizing California’s Water Governance,” recommends creating a Department of Water Management to focus on water use planning and management and water rights administration and accounting. The report also recommends creating an independent agency to operate the State Water Project, collaborating with the federal Central Valley Project. The report says the California Water Commission should provide oversight for bond money.

Gray’s office notes that the state’s water management system has changed little since 1969. An overhaul of the system would improve transparency, oversight and accountability, the Little Hoover report said.

Capper said Gray consulted with irrigation districts and “folks in the water world” when working on the bill. Officials with the Merced Irrigation District are reviewing the bill.

Gray has been outspoken in criticizing the state water board on its Bay-Delta plan, creating a campaign with the slogan “Stop the regulatory drought.”

A new water management system is necessary to work through future water issues, such as climate change, a growing population and an expanding economy, Gray said.

“These changes have been a long time coming,” he said. “We need to integrate water governance in a way that allows progress instead of gridlock.”

Brianna Calix: 209-385-2477

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