State Water Board Gains Some New Powers and Hard Tasks

Charlie Hoppin almost became one of the most powerful persons in state government.

He has plenty of power as chairman of the State Water Resources Control Board but the Yuba City rice farmer was going to be presiding over a body with significantly greater powers to halt water scofflaws – at least when the recently concluded special session on water began in late October.

But in the dead-of-night last minute deal cutting that capped the special session the very interests that feared those powers would be leveled against them, succeeded in removing them from the package.

Among the recommendations of the Delta Vision Task Force, whose two years of hearings and investigation were the foundation of much of the water package, were expanding the already broad powers of the water board to better prevent illegal diversions, improve conservation and protect water quality.

The mission statement of the five-member board, created in 1967, is wide-ranging: “Preserve, enhance and restore the quality of California’s water resources and ensure their proper allocation and efficient use for the benefit of present and future generations.”

The state board also supervises nine regional boards, acting as an appellate body on rulings of the regional boards if they are contested.

Under current law, if an entity with water rights on a stream or river system files a complaint against other water right holders, the board investigates.

The delta task force recommended the board be allowed to initiate its own water rights investigations.

And, as the special session on water began, Senate President Pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg, introduced a bill, SB4 7X, which would allow the board to do so. (Section 8, et seq., of the bill summary)

The bill would have allowed the board to inspect the facilities of ay entity under investigation to determine if they were complying with the law.

Steinberg’s bill also increased the fines for someone who violates a cease-and-desist order issued by the board.

Like fine wine, the older water rights are the better. A water right issued in 1920 trumps one issued in 1971 and, those issued before 1914, under current law, trump everything else.

An example of a water right issued before 1914 is San Francisco’s claim on Hetch Hetchy.

Long-time water rights holders, like San Francisco, feared that the board might use its new power to investigate their water rights and succeeded in removing that provision from the water package.

Board observers say the fears are unfounded given the board’s already large backlog of complaints filed by other entities. For example, the board has been holding hearings for 17 years on water rights on the Yuba River based on a complaint filed by the Department of Fish and Game.

By declaring that water consumption must be reduced by 20 percent by 2020, the package does, tacitly, broaden the board’s power by allowing it to require parties to show how they plan to meet that goal. 

And the water package augments the board’s budget by $3.7 million, allowing it to add 25 much-needed positions and help ratchet down its backlog.

Additional employees will also help the board meet a challenging assignment handed to it in the water package – determining flow standards for the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta within nine months.

Developing flow standards is complicated. The process requires determining how much water needs to move through the system at which times, under what climactic conditions, in order to protect or enhance water quality as well as protect threatened or protected species. 

“The flow criteria for the Delta ecosystem shall include the volume, quality and timing of water necessary for the Delta ecosystem under different conditions,” is how the water package understates it.

The board has been working on flow standards for the San Joaquin River for two years, which might help it meet the tight deadline for the delta.


Filed under: State Agencies


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