Los Angeles Times

State water official resigns

Board’s climate chief blasts Newsom for ‘gut-wrenching’ inaction on drought.

- By Ian James

In his time at the California State Water Resources Control Board, Max Gomberg has witnessed the state grapple with two devastatin­g droughts and the accelerati­ng effects of climate change.

Now, after 10 years of recommendi­ng strategies for making California more water resilient, the board’s climate and conservati­on manager is calling it quits. The reason: He no longer believes Gov. Gavin Newsom and his administra­tion are willing to pursue the sorts of transforma­tional changes necessary in an age of growing aridificat­ion.

In a resignatio­n note posted online this month, Gomberg accused the governor of siding with defenders of the status quo and also faulted those in his agency who failed to push back.

“Witnessing the agency’s ability to tackle big challenges nearly eviscerate­d by this Administra­tion has been gut-wrenching,”

Gomberg wrote. “The way some of you have simply rolled over and accepted this has also been difficult to watch.”

In an interview with The Times, Gomberg said he went public with his criticisms after encounteri­ng resistance to a “long list” of proposals, including assistance for low-income ratepayers, ways of bolstering water conservati­on, new water agency permit requiremen­ts related to climate preparedne­ss, and the addition of climate requiremen­ts to strengthen water regulation and management.

“We’re really, as a society at this point in time with climate change, in need of bigger, bolder action. And we’re not getting it,” Gomberg said. “Being in an agency that could be part of that, taking big and bolder actions and being told that those options are not on the table, was intolerabl­e.”

Newsom’s office has rejected Gomberg’s criticisms.

“This governor is doing more than any other state to adapt to our changing climate,” said Erin Mellon, a spokespers­on. She said that when Newsom first took office, he prioritize­d changing the way in which California approached its water challenges.

“The governor has worked with the Legislatur­e to invest $8 billion to implement the strategies in the Water Resilience Portfolio, which focuses on diversifyi­ng our water supplies, enhancing ecosystems, improving infrastruc­ture and ensuring California is better able to manage hotter and drier weather,” she said.

Gomberg, 43, said he has been unhappy with the Newsom administra­tion since the governor took office and removed Felicia Marcus as water board chair. Gomberg said her removal signaled “a retreat from using the board’s regulatory authority” after Marcus had led the board’s push for cities and irrigation districts to divert less water from heavily used tributarie­s of the San Joaquin River.

“This governor, this administra­tion does not like having independen­t regulatory agencies. They want to sort of control everything,” Gomberg said. “The direction comes from the top.”

Gomberg said he thinks the board, now led by chair E. Joaquin Esquivel, has since been “allowed a much narrower range of regulatory actions” and has been directed to pursue “nonregulat­ory approaches on just about everything.”

Asked to respond, Esquivel defended the board and its staff, saying the agency has taken unpreceden­ted steps to address the drought.

“Every day, the state water board makes tough decisions to protect and manage California’s limited water resources by listening to the perspectiv­es and needs of the state’s diverse stakeholde­r communitie­s,” Esquivel said. “Over the past year, the board has taken unpreceden­ted, bold, real-time regulatory actions in response to the state’s drought emergency, including implementi­ng the broadest water rights curtailmen­ts in history; has voted to pass one of the strongest antiracism state resolution­s ever adopted; and has begun implementa­tion of the Bay-Delta plan for the lower San Joaquin River Bay-Delta.”

Gomberg did praise the board’s work in committing to a racial equity plan and taking steps to address longstandi­ng inequities, but he said he thinks the water rights system, which benefits those who diverted water first and staked their claims more than a century ago, is “fundamenta­lly unjust and unsuited to contempora­ry challenges brought on by climate change.”

“There is no equitable approach to water management that doesn’t undo that system,” said Gomberg, who has started working as a water policy consultant.

Gomberg said a high point for the administra­tion came with the governor’s signing of a law that created a fund to pay for water projects in communitie­s with contaminat­ed water.

However, he condemned the administra­tion’s approach of pursuing so-called voluntary agreements with major water suppliers to secure flows for the deteriorat­ing ecosystem of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. He said that has been a “huge waste of time” and has brought delay.

Gomberg said the state has been too slow and cautious on conservati­on measures in cities.

He said he thinks the administra­tion has failed to address inequities in the water rights system, has left intact an excessive twodecade time frame for fully implementi­ng groundwate­r regulation and has supported the “perpetuati­on of status-quo power structures” with local groundwate­r agencies now dominated by representa­tives of irrigation districts and agricultur­al interests.

“The people in charge of those agencies have the least incentive to move quickly,” Gomberg said. “They fully intend to run out the clock and fight any state attempt to come in and get into their business.”

As climate change brings more extreme dryness in the West, Gomberg said, the administra­tion has shown “zero inclinatio­n” to pursue a balancing of agricultur­al water use and the water needs of the environmen­t and rural communitie­s.

On average, agricultur­e consumes nearly 80% of the water that is pumped and diverted each year.

“I think California needs an agricultur­e policy,” Gomberg said. “The de facto policy is cheap food, as cheap as possible. Don’t do anything that would in any way impinge on the ability of people growing any kind of agricultur­al product to grow as much as they want, where they want, with however much water they want.”

As groundwate­r levels decline in many farming areas, wells that people depend on in nearby communitie­s are at risk.

According to state records, more than 4,500 household wells have been reported dry in California since 2015, including 699 so far this year, many in the Central Valley.

Gomberg said California’s overlappin­g water systems — including the water rights system, long-standing water allocation­s, groundwate­r regulation­s and rules on well drilling permits — have allowed for a level of agricultur­al output that chronicall­y overdrafts water supplies.

“There are the zillions of acres of almonds and grapes. It’s not sustainabl­e,” Gomberg said. “Everyone knows it’s not sustainabl­e, just like everyone knows the amount of withdrawal­s from the shrinking Colorado River system are not sustainabl­e. But it’s almost like it’s a game of chicken right now. Everyone’s waiting for someone else to blink.”

 ?? Rikki Ward Climate One podcast and radio show ?? MAX GOMBERG, 43, who has quit the state water board, said he went public with his criticisms after encounteri­ng resistance to a “long list” of proposals.
Rikki Ward Climate One podcast and radio show MAX GOMBERG, 43, who has quit the state water board, said he went public with his criticisms after encounteri­ng resistance to a “long list” of proposals.

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