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Eleven Experts to Watch on California Water Rights

In the third installment of our “Experts to Watch” series, meet 11 experts helping us understand the important issues involved in water rights in California.

Written by Eline Gordts Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
In this photo taken May 20, 2015, water runs irrigates crops on a farm near Dixon, Calif. In 2015 California, grappling with drought, exacted the broadest water cuts on record among farmers and others holding some of the strongest water rights in the state, directing thousands in one of the country's prime farm regions to stop all pumping from three major waterways.Rich Pedroncelli, AP

The widely used quote, “Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over,” often attributed to Mark Twain, has been used by politicians from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Dianne Feinstein to describe California’s battles over water rights. The quote itself may in fact be bogus, but it does illustrate why water rights are a difficult, but critical, topic in California.

At the end of July, California’s State Water Resources Control Board started public hearings on the California WaterFix – Governor Jerry Brown’s plan to create two tunnels under the Delta that will deliver water from northern California to the State Water Project and Central Valley Project. The first set of hearings focuses on water rights, making the tunnels just one more topic stirring the fierce debate over rights in the state.

California has one of the most complex systems of water allocation in the country, and that system has come under increasing pressure in the past years of drought. Meet 11 experts working day in, day out in this crucial field.

Andy Sawyer

Attorney Andy Sawyer is an assistant chief counsel at the State Water Resources Control Board, the public body responsible for protecting water quality and allocating surface water rights. Sawyer manages the activities of the Office of Chief Counsel, covering the board’s water rights and underground storage tank programs, and has been involved in many of the major recent legal battles over water rights in California. Sawyer has worked for the water board for nearly three decades.

David Aladjem

David Aladjem is a partner at Downey Brand LLP, one of California’s leading law firms when it comes to water law issues. He is an expert in water resource management problems, particularly when they intersect with water rights, endangered species, the National Environmental Policy Act and the California Environmental Quality Act.

He frequently serves as counsel for public agencies during multiparty water negotiations. Aladjem has received the Sacramento Area Council of Governments Citizen of the Year award and is a recipient of the Association of California Water Agencies’ 2009 Excellence in Water Leadership Award for his part in the Recycled Water Stakeholders Group.

Jennifer Harder

Jennifer Harder was a partner at Downey Brand before entering academia. As an assistant professor at the University of the Pacific’s McGeorge School of Law, she teaches courses in water and environmental law. She is particularly interested in the integration of water rights principles into contemporary regulatory systems, the nexus between water and land use issues, environmental compliance, water use efficiency and water finance. Harder is the co-author of the ninth edition of “Cases and Materials on Water Law.”

Michael George

The State Water Resources Control Board appointed attorney Michael George as its second Delta Watermaster in 2009. The role is both regulatory and advisory, George told The Planning Report in 2015. He said he makes sure the administration of water rights in the Delta is consistent with state law and advises the state water board and the Delta Stewardship Council on policy and management of Delta affairs.

“The critical issue is how to distribute and put to beneficial use the limited [water] supply that is available in a way that’s consistent with the state’s water laws. Because there is more demand on our water system than there is water to fulfill all the demand, we have to be very careful and circumspect about how we allocate that scarce resource,” said George.

Richard M. Frank

Professor Richard M. Frank advocates profound changes to California’s approach to water rights, arguing that the current system is both dated and dysfunctional. “In an era of relatively few people and limited statewide water demand, California’s water rights system worked reasonably well. Now, 100 years later, with the same legal rules intact, California’s population growing steadily, and state water supplies shrinking due to the effects of climate change, that system has become antiquated, dysfunctional and unresponsive to 21st century conditions,” he wrote in an April 2015 opinion piece.

Frank has long played a prominent role in considering environmental practices in California. He is currently a professor of environmental practice at the University of California, Davis, and he heads the California Environmental Law and Policy Center. He practiced law with federal and state agencies for more than 30 years, served as California’s chief deputy attorney general for legal affairs, advised policy makers on environmental issues ranging from the future of the Delta to strategy for the Department of Fish and Wildlife and was the executive director of the Center for Law, Energy & the Environment at UC Berkeley Law.

Doug Obegi

Doug Obegi is a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit organization working to ensure every person’s right to clean air, clean water and healthy communities. He works on several projects related to water resource management in California, and frequently writes and speaks about water management, water rights, environmental protections and endangered species.

He has argued that the way California allocates and manages water supplies in the drought years may have repercussions that last for decades. “We can have both a healthy environment and economy – including agriculture. But if we continue to sacrifice environmental protections instead of investing in long-term water solutions, we will probably have neither. And that will affect all of us,” he said.

Richard Roos-Collins

Richard Roos-Collins is an attorney at the Water and Power Law Group and an adjunct professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law, where he focuses on water resources law and policy. A renowned environmental lawyer and negotiator, Roos-Collins has represented companies, public agencies, fishing and conservation groups, tribes and property owners.

He worked on both the Klamath Agreements and the Mono Lake cases. Roos-Collins formerly served as deputy attorney general for the California Department of Justice and attorney-advisor for the Environmental Protection Agency.

Holly Doremus

Holly Doremus is James H. House and Hiram H. Hurd Professor of Environmental Regulation and the Faculty Co-Director at the Center for Law, Energy & the Environment at the University of California, Berkeley. She’s also the director of the Environmental Law Program at the university. Doremus earned a Ph.D in plant physiology before becoming a legal scholar, and that multidisciplinary background has informed and enriched her legal scholarship. She is well known for her work in environmental law, natural resources law, and law and science and currently teaches water law and environmental law.

Dave Owen

UC Hastings professor Dave Owen’s research is primarily focused on water resource management. He received widespread praise for his 2015 paper “Trading Dams,” co-authored with Colin Apse of the Nature Conservancy. The innovative study examined how environmental trading systems might facilitate better reconciliation of the positive benefits and negative impacts of dams.

Owen currently teaches environmental, natural resources, water and administrative law. Before turning to academia, he worked as a lawyer on water allocation disputes involving the Colorado River and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, and the controversy surrounding the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository.

Brian Gray

Brian Gray joined the PPIC Water Policy Center as a senior fellow on July 1 2016. Over a career spanning several decades, the UC Hastings Professor Emeritus of Law has taught numerous classes, including those on environmental law and water resources. He has argued several environmental and water resources cases before the California Supreme Court and the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Before joining PPIC permanently this summer, Gray co-authored prominent PPIC water reports, including a 2011 book on water management in the state and several recent papers on the drought.

Barton H. “Buzz” Thompson

Stanford Law School professor Barton H. “Buzz” Thompson is a well known water rights expert, having focused much of his research on the sustainable use and effective regulations of water and other natural resources. He is the founding director of the law school’s environmental and natural resources program, senior fellow of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and a senior fellow (by courtesy) at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. He is also the co-author of a leading water law casebook.

In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court appointed Thompson as special master in the case of the Montana vs. Wyoming dispute over waters of the Yellowstone River system. “I have taught water law for over three decades and consulted for governments, businesses and environmental groups on a variety of water issues,” he said when recalling that experience, “but until I was a special master I honestly didn’t realize how precious every single drop of water is in many parts of the western U.S. Every gallon can make or break a person’s livelihood in rural areas with little water.”

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