What state water board is doing wrong

Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board, discusses conservation measures in April 2015.
Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board, discusses conservation measures in April 2015. Associated Press file

After years of working on water, environment and agriculture issues in California, it remains a mystery to me why the appointed State Water Resources Control Board and several other environmental boards and commissions so often don’t understand the pushback from ordinary Californians on their regulatory agenda.

The latest example is occurring during the public comment period on the plan to vastly increase unimpaired water flows from eastern and southern tributaries into the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

The water resources board is proceeding despite loud objections based on scientific evidence, human and ecological suffering, economic impacts, job losses and political pressure from Southern California and the Central Valley.

Are these appointees and elected officials isolated from those who live daily with the higher cost of living, poor water quality, dying fish species and less water that result from their unilateral and unchecked regulations? Or are they suffering from selective hearing, listening only when it is convenient and supportive of their decisions?

Either way, a real us-versus-them mentality has developed, though not from public confusion. To the contrary, there are many large issues on which most Californians agree.

Nearly everyone wants a reliable, safe and clean water supply for their families, businesses and industry. We willingly share water with the environment, fish, farms, recreational users and hydropower producers. We also recognize that the state periodically suffers severe drought, know personal sacrifices must be made and gladly conserve water.

As Californians we even know that the state’s growing population and obsolete water infrastructure requires that regulators and Congress must set in place rules and laws that are transparent, effective and fair.

With this general consensus, members of the public are justifiably mystified and angry when the water resources board treats them as second-class participants and ignores their valuable experience and comments. Often public comments are relegated to the end of meetings with strict time limits of one to three minutes.

On the other hand, the board often listens enthralled to those who work closely with them behind the scenes, who write scientific justifications under state contracts or grants, or those who represent powerful stakeholders. No elected official could get away for long showing such favoritism and disregard for so many constituents.

Gov. Jerry Brown, Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León and Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, who appoint board members, seem incapable or unwilling to understand that their values are not universally shared by all Californians, especially on water.

During the coming few weeks of public comment, the water resources board, the governor and other state officials will portray themselves as leading visionaries doing what’s right in the face of unjust and ignorant criticism. They will forge ahead and take more water to cover up their failure to protect endangered species, even as Californians are still rationing their water use.

That is not visionary leadership. It’s self-serving. The only entity in California that can get away with taking more water during a drought without being fined is the state itself.

Concerned members of the public should tell top officials they are dissatisfied with the tone-deaf water board. Enough loud voices might open their ears.

Aubrey Bettencourt is executive director of the California Water Alliance, a nonprofit policy and advocacy group. Contact her at