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3 Bills Could Upend Water Rights

If California as we know it is to continue to exist, we will need sustainable water sources. However, a trio of bills moving through the Legislature is the wrong approach.

Senate Bill 389, introduced by Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, Assembly Bill 1337, introduced by Asm. Buffy Wicks, D-Oakland, and Assembly Bill 460, introduced by Asm. Rebecca Bauer-Kahan, D-San Ramon, would upend the water rights system that, while imperfect, has worked in California for more than a century.

These bills would strip away due process for water-rights holders and take an aggressive approach to enforcement that is akin to nailing a painting to the wall with a jackhammer.

AB 1337 dramatically alters the current system by consolidating power at the State Water Resources Control Board, subjecting water users to the whims of the state even when there is no drought.

SB 389 empowers the SWRCB to indiscriminately investigate water diversions, subjecting those with legitimate water rights claims to a faulty, guilty-until-proven-innocent process.

And AB 460 gives the SWRCB unprecedented authority to intervene on water diversions without any sort of due process, while increasing fines by such crippling amounts that only those with the deepest pockets would be willing to take the risk to divert water legally, thereby killing family farming.

But our water rights system does not need wholesale changes – SWRCB staff argued as much earlier this year in a presentation independent of these bills. In fact, the current system has worked quite well.

When settlers came to California in the 1800s, they staked out land and diverted water from nearby sources, establishing appropriative rights. These were in addition riparian rights, which are rights to the water adjacent to a property. Both types of rights were supported by legal tradition and when California was founded both were soon enshrined in statute. Then in 1914 California passed the Water Commission Act, which established the permitting system we have today, roughly rounding out the overall system as we know it.

This is an abbreviated version of history, but the key takeaway is that this system has worked for a long time and from it sprouted California as we know it.

Because of the current system, California has bloomed to nearly 40 million people. It produced some of the greatest cities in the world. It created great wealth and opportunity for countless people. And it developed a multi-billion dollar agricultural industry that produces a third of the country’s vegetables and 75 percent of the nation’s fruits and nuts while employing 900,000 people a year.

Water policy is complicated and the current system supports many stakeholders. It is used by literally every person living in this state, from water districts, to consumers, to ranchers, to farmers, and so many more. This is neither a partisan issue nor a regional issue, which is why these bills are opposed by a diverse group of people and organizations throughout the state.

The unintended consequences would be significant if these bills were signed into law. The state will waste valuable taxpayer funds defending against lawsuits – that’s not a threat, it’s merely an acknowledgment of what will happen if the government eliminates rights and tramples due process.

Jerry Hill, a Democratic former state senator, recently pointed out that these bills would threaten the state’s housing goals by making it harder to build by “creating water uncertainty,” driving up the cost of food at a time when far too many Californians are food-insecure, and jeopardizing essential jobs in both the construction and agriculture industries.

We believe the lawmakers who introduced these bills are sincerely concerned about access to water in the future. We are too; water is as essential to human life as oxygen. But the key to securing our water future is through increasing water supply, not through aggressive government rationing.

All of us in the mountain counties region can attest to the tremendous bounty of snowfall this year that will simply drain off into the ocean after possibly causing some disastrous floods. It doesn’t have to be this way.

We need more water storage, and our Association stands ready to work with anyone to increase the state’s water capacity. We are also happy to work with anyone on streamlining the water permitting process and strengthening the current system.

These three bills are not the solution and will only make matters worse. We urge lawmakers to reject them.