California Lawmakers Always Thirsty for More Water Laws

California Lawmakers Always Thirsty for More Water Laws

Water policy is one of those topics that can leave newcomers and casual listeners feeling inundated. The regulations that govern state and federal water policy are laced with a flood of acronyms and terms, with a steady gush of changes to state water policy and regulation over the past decade.

In 2014, the California State Legislature and voters passed the revised version of a 2009 water bond into law. The new bond, commonly referred to as Proposition 1, earmarked funding for water storage projects, infrastructure investment, and wastewater treatment, among other policies.

Proposition 1 was heralded as historic legislation by all sides. More than 67 percent of voters approved it, which is incredibly high. Unfortunately, like most parts of government, the approved funding has moved forward at a glacial pace.

Only 14 percent of one portion of the money has been spent as of February 2018. The much-applauded water storage project funding was finally allocated funding for eight projects last July. The first one probably won’t be operational until 2023, almost ten years since funding was passed by voters.

Governor Jerry Brown signed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, or SGMA, in 2014 too. The SGMA package of bills established a framework for better managing groundwater recharge and preventing overdraft in certain groundwater basins.

And after California entered severe drought conditions in 2014, Governor Brown declared an emergency drought declaration that included cutting water use by 25 percent. Water districts assigned specific watering days for residents and fined those that were caught using too much water. Brown signed permanent water efficiency legislation into law in 2018.

The California State Water Resources Control Board, the state’s primary water quality regulator, also voted for a controversial reallocation of water from agriculture and urban areas to river flows for fish in 2018.

Surprisingly, a decade of substantial policy changes has yet to quench the thirst of regulators and lawmakers.

Currently, the California State Legislature is debating a bill that would ensure clean air, water, endangered species, and worker safety standards are not rolled back by the federal government. Media have called the bill the “Trump Insurance Law.”

California Senate Bill 1 let’s state and local governments use federal environmental law in statute before the current administration entered the White House. Essentially, California wants to pretend that pending changes to these federal environmental laws aren’t happening with many groups already suing the Trump administration.

Whatever the merits of the federal regulations, Senate Bill 1 is doing what many on the left accuse those on the right of embracing: denying modern science.

At a recent luncheon, representatives from the California State Water Contractors, an association of 27 public water agencies, and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, were adamant that changes in federal statutes and other biological opinions are updated with modern science and Senate Bill 1 would block the adoption of new science.

Passing Senate Bill 1 would deny important updates to science for new biological opinions, as well as impact voluntary agreements already existing between agencies.

Governor Gavin Newsom also directed state agencies to develop a water resilience portfolio initiative. It may be worth asking how the findings of the initiative could be impacted by the freezing of standards by Senate Bill 1.

And let’s not count out the California State Assembly wanting to get in on the action. During a Public Policy Institute of California talk, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon said Democrats may consider putting another water bond on the ballot.

PRI has long advocated for water markets that remove government interference. Since nearly every drop of water in California is touched by a public agency, a more market-based approach could spread water and help areas with dirty or contaminated water.

Regardless, you can bet that no matter what issues may be taking center stage in California, water will always bubble to the surface.

Evan Harris is the Pacific Research Institute’s media relations and outreach manager.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.