The Little Hoover Commission and the water crisis

September 09, 2010 | By PACIFIC LEGAL FOUNDATION

Author:  Damien M. Schiff

Last month, the Little Hoover Commission, a state independent government oversight agency, issued its report Managing for Change:  Modernizing California's Water Governance.  The report details the Commission's recommendations for moving California water management and allocation into the 21st century.  The report makes three major recommendations for changing how state government regulates water, focusing on rearranging which state agencies have control over which aspect of water governance.

Currently, water management and governance are divided among several different agencies.  For example, the Department of Water Resources is the state's chief management agency for water (planning for dams and reservoirs and the like), as well as the operator of the State Water Project, which provides water for millions of agricultural and municipal users in the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.  The State Water Resources Control Board is the chief water rights agency, handing out appropriation permits and policing against illegal water diversions, as well as regulating water quality.  The Department of Fish and Game regulates a number of in-stream uses, such as fish and wildlife habitat.  California's approach to water governance is, as the foregoing shows, more than a little complex; moreover, California's approach is unique among the western states, where most of these functions are located in a single agency.

Here enters the Little Hoover Commission's report, which recommends, among other things, that large portions of the aforementioned agencies' responsibilities be transferred to a new agency, the Department of Water Management.  This agency would "consolidate management and planning functions of the Department of Water Resources with the Water Rights Division of the State Water Resources Control Board and the instream flow group of the Water Branch of the Department of Fish and Game."

The report also recommends that operation of the State Water Project be transferred to a new independent state agency, the California Water Authority, which would operate the project like a public utility.  (The report also recommends that California eventually acquire complete control over the currently federally owned Central Valley Project).

Finally, the report recommends that the recently resuscitated California Water Commission be given chief oversight responsibility for the administration of all natural resource bond expenditures.

All told, the Commission's report is thoughtful and bold; it's recommendations, however, will surely run in to significant opposition from those in government and the private sector who have a significant interest in maintaining the status quo.