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Gov. Jerry Brown may restructure water boards, throwing ag rules into doubt

Jason Hoppin, Santa Cruz Sentinel

SANTA CRUZ - Gov. Jerry Brown's determination to shrink the size of government could spell the end for a board overseeing a nationally watched set of proposed agricultural water rules, according to a proposal being circulated by Brown's office.

According to sources familiar with the plan, Brown recently proposed restructuring California's nine regional water quality boards, including eliminating the Central Coast board weighing the controversial rules. While the plan hasn't been formally announced, critics say Brown, with barely a week left in the 2011 legislative session, is proposing a radical change with potentially huge implications for local drinking water.

"It's hard to do these big political changes in the last seven days of session. And we wonder why certain water boards were chosen for consolidation over others," said Jim Metropulos, a Sierra Club lobbyist in Sacramento.

Brown's office declined to comment on the plan, which was outlined by several sources familiar with the details. A spokesman said the governor does not discuss pending legislation, but the plan is filtering through agricultural, environmental and political circles.

It would clear up persistent conflict problems among the nine boards by removing designated board seats for farmers, water quality experts, the public and others. It also would reduce the number of members on each board from nine to five.

But the plan also would cut two boards, combining them with nearby districts. According to sources briefed on the plan, two boards singled out for elimination are the Central Coastal and Colorado River regional water quality control boards.

Roger Briggs, executive officer of the Central Coast district, said the proposal echoes an earlier push to cut government floated by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger when he first came into office.
"I've heard second-hand information and understand that these stories are flying around the state right now," Briggs said.

One potential vehicle for the plan is Senate Bill 900, authored by Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg. That bill addresses the conflict issue, but could be amended to include broader reforms.

Steinberg's office referred questions to the governor's office. SB 900 is sponsored by the Western Growers Association - which has criticized the Central Coast's proposed water rules - but the agency declined to comment on proposed changes to the boards.

One source said late Wednesday the governor was considering scrapping the plan to contract the number of boards, a move that could save the Central Coast agency. With nothing finalized, the shifting proposals are evidence that the situation remains fluid.

The water rules pending before the Central Coast board aim at agricultural runoff and groundwater contamination, particularly from nitrates. They include detailed rules and an agricultural monitoring program for assessing groundwater that together comprise likely the toughest agricultural water rules in the country.

The issue is being closely watched by agricultural and environmental groups. Many farmers say the proposal is impossible to comply with and could drive agriculture from the fertile Salinas and Pajaro valleys, but environmental advocates say it is needed to protect everything from drinking water for families to the health of Monterey Bay.

The Central Coast board was to have voted on the rules today, but conflicts of interest and open seats among the board have kept it from having the quorum needed to take a vote. It has now been postponed indefinitely.

But if the Central Coast board is dissolved, those proposals could go up in smoke.
"We'd hate to see that all the sudden destroyed or coming to an end," Metropulos said.
If the board were broken up, it would likely be combined with boards headquartered in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Los Angeles' farm water rules don't address groundwater, and the San Francisco office doesn't have any.

"Either way, we'd have to start from scratch," said Jennifer Clary, a water policy and legislative analyst for Clean Water Action. "It would set us back years."

Briggs said dissolving the Central Coast board would affect the rules. But he doesn't know how.
"Of course it'll have an effect, but what it'll be is speculation," he said.

Others have heard Brown may restructure the boards. But Danny Merkley, director of water resources for the California Farm Bureau, said he didn't think there was enough time left in the session for the proposal to proceed.

"But you know, stranger things have happened," Merkley said.

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