A change of management?

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Probably you won’t get a tremendous amount of argument to the idea that California could use something of a repair job on its water administration system. You’ll get none here.

Whether the new assembly-passed bill seeking to do that will be the answer a lot of eople are looking for is another issue.

Here’s a description of it from Assemblymember Adam Gray, its chief sponsor:

“AB 313 establishes a new water rights management structure, creating a new Water Rights Division in the Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) to handle all water rights matters. The shift removes conflicts of interest and built-in biases in the current system. The State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) currently exercises vast control over California’s water rights. The SWRCB has the power to write regulations, initiate enforcement actions, and conduct hearings in its own courtroom in which Board staff act as the prosecution and Board members act as judge and jury.”

Okay, so a new agency would be created. How would that help improve matters as compared to doing a renovation on the old one (the Water Resources Control Board)?

There’s actually a case here. The new agency would come with administrative law judges who would decide cases in a court-like setting, rather than by administrative fiat. This would be closer to a water court-type system such as many states have. Gray’s argument is that by spreading the authority around, things are less likely to become choked up in a system dominated by a few administrators.
The water court-type system isn’t exactly setting land speed records for adjudicative action either, though. In most states where that kind of setup is in place, water cases tend to take a very long time.

There is sometimes a lack of coordination in the water court system that can mean some weakness the system of water administration, which would be counter to what this bill is trying to accomplish. The idea here is supposed to involve a more stable and thoughtfully-developed water system.

It may, however, be somewhat less susceptible to pressure from various interest groups, which has long been an important part of what bedevils California water administration, and has ever since California statehood.

Some of the states with relatively efficient water management systems, such as Idaho and Arizona, seem to get by on a kind of hybrid, a mix of state administration with strong court involvement. That’s what allowed Idaho to pull together within one generation – a remarkable instance of speed and agility – the adjudication of the Snake River Basin, the largest stream adjudication in the country. That and an atmosphere of cooperation among the parties involved.
And that may be the other key thing to watch out for.

In the end, the structure may matter a good deal less than the willingness of the people involved to effectively work together. Until that willingness kicks in, the best structure in the work isn’t likely to solve a state’s water management problems.

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