Powerful water board picking on little guy (East Bay Times guest commentary)
May 09, 2016
Powerful water board picking on little guy (East Bay Times guest commentary) By Jeff Denham, Cathleen Galgiani, Adam Gray and Bob ElliottEast Bay Times My Word Posted: 05/09/16, 5:57 PM PDT|Updated: on 05/09/2016 The State Water Resources Control Board has tried for too long to bully the Byron-Bethany Irrigation District (BBID), and we've had enough. It's time the board's misguided case against BBID ends and remove the regulatory limbo the farmers within BBID currently face. In a misguided, ill-informed attempt to flex its regulatory muscle, the board picked on the little guy: Byron-Bethany Irrigation District, a small district in the Tracy area that supplies water to the farmers and ranchers who provide California's -- and the nation's -- food, as well as to the 14,000 residents of Mountain House. The board unfairly singled BBID out, threatening it with a massive $5 million fine and accusing it of illegally diverting water last summer after BBID was told no water was available pursuant to its pre-1914 water right. The board's prosecutor dubbed the case against BBID a straightforward "test case;" an opportunity for the board to consider "bigger-picture questions." The case was billed as a slam-dunk, "simple math," according to the board's prosecutor when the hearing began. It has become anything but. BBID's representatives wasted no time picking the board's case apart, arguing that careful analysis showed there was water available -- that the board got it wrong. Before BBID even presented its case-in-chief, the board hearing team suspended the proceedings, heard arguments for dismissal and, pending a ruling on the motion to dismiss, suspended the hearing indefinitely, vacating all remaining hearing dates. That was March 25. Since then, there has been silence. According to a meeting agenda, the board discussed the matter in closed session at its April 5 meeting. Publicly, the board said nothing. Not a word. Then, in what can only be described as a bizarre step, on April 20, the board issued a procedural ruling "closing the evidentiary records" in the BBID hearing. Parse out the jargon, and that means BBID will not be able to present its case further before the very agency that accused it of wrongdoing and is still holding a record-setting fine over its head. To recap: An irrigation district with senior water rights was hand-picked as a test case and wrongfully accused, threatening the livelihoods of multi-generational family farmers and ranchers, and threatening the future of the community in which they live. Perhaps the board's prosecutors and senior management didn't expect a fight, but it got one. And once the board's hearing team saw, first-hand, how seriously flawed the case against BBID was, the board did the legal equivalent of going into hiding. We can't speculate as to the board's motives in delaying a resolution of a proceeding that should never have started, but the impacts are inarguable and significant. The board's lack of urgency in dismissing this matter is causing a ripple effect, down to some BBID farmers now struggling to secure financing for the growing season. Banks are hesitating due to the cloud of uncertainty surrounding the hearing and the specter of a multimillion dollar fine. The bottom line is this: It is inconceivable the board's hearing team would prevent BBID from presenting its case -- and then rule against BBID. That leaves only one clear option. We call on the board to do the reputable thing, take immediate action and dismiss this proceeding once and for all. Enough is enough. Jeff Denham is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Adam Gray is a state assemblyman, Cathleen Galgiani is a state senator and Bob Elliott is a San Joaquin County supervisor.