A dangerous trio of bills moving through the Legislature would greatly expand the power of unelected water officials and bureaucrats by stripping authority from high-level water rights holders, most of whom have exercised these rights for more than a century. They include the Modesto, Turlock, and Fresno Irrigation Districts, the City of Sacramento, and the City and County of San Francisco.
To usurp control of water from these agencies and transfer authority to the designated State Water Resources Control Board represents a reckless and unnecessary shift in power.
Arguments in favor of Assembly Bills 460 and 1337 and Senate Bill 389 generalize the existing water rights system as outdated and flawed. This is a narrative often promulgated by those who think they don’t have enough water and want to take it away from those who do.
When it comes to water, it’s feast or famine in California: feast this year, with full reservoirs and abundant snowpack and potential for flooding, on the heels of a scorching multi-year water famine, or drought. A coordinated push for water regulatory reform this year is not a reflection of current hydrological conditions, but the result of decades of greed for water by those who do not enjoy similar water rights.
Those with high-level water rights do so because their ancestors captured the lifeblood that dripped from the mountains’ snowpack a century ago in reservoirs. There it is held for strategic release as needed for drinking water and crops for the remainder of the year. California owes its generosity to that extraordinary vision and investment.
Thirsty interests, including those hoping to restore the fish count, have challenged this legacy. Courts have consistently upheld the legitimacy of the state’s water rights system, particularly favoring those with claims that predate the creation of the State Water Board in 1914. These high-level water rights holders include cities and districts. water agencies listed above: all public agencies, mostly represented by elected office holders accountable to the voters.
CA water rights system is working
The priority system is not perfect, but it justly rewards prophetic investment and a century of stewardship with a valuable resource that should not be capriciously snatched away.
The State Water Board has tried for years to increase its authority over high-level water rights holders, with limited success. This year, the fight has moved to the Legislature.
AB 460 would give the State Water Board broad power to issue orders against agencies that divert water from California rivers without hearings, substantially weakening traditional review standards. That’s why the California Association of Water Agencies and a coalition of business and agricultural interests and manufacturers oppose the bill.
AB 1337 would give the plate similar power in any year, wet or dry. Yes, illegal diversions deserve harsh punishment, but there’s no justification for giving the state board unlimited authority regardless of conditions, and even water agencies with pre-1914 rights could be vulnerable. That’s why the California Farm Bureau and water agencies across the state, including the Modesto and Turlock Irrigation Districts, are fighting the bill.
And any diverter would bear the legal burden of proving their water claim under SB 389, which casts doubt on the validity of vested rights and makes the State Water Board the sole arbiter of disputes. In fact, due process and transparency would be reduced. Joining the opposing builders, dealers and growers are local government leaders in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties, as well as Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer.
The sea change to long-established rights represented in each of these bills is impressive. Fallout could threaten California’s economy and plunge water rights issues into a quagmire of litigation.
This is not a question of urban versus rural interests. It should not be subject to partisan disputes. Unrestricted authority in the hands of an unelected panel has never been a good idea.
Cities and water agencies have more knowledge than Sacramento bureaucrats about local needs and conditions. They cannot hope to operate efficiently when subject to the whims of the state government.