Ag-water interests say a recent report recommending a shake-up of California's water governance is a decent start to a necessary discussion.

The report by the state-oversight agency Little Hoover Commission recommended centralizing management of the State Water Project under a proposed Department of Water Management within the Natural Resources Agency.

The commission said such a shift would help implement the policies enacted through last year's landmark water legislation, which created a new governance structure for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, the hub of the state's conveyance system.

The state's current water-management structure is "not aligned in a way that will allow California to adequately manage and plan for the future, or the full potential of these water reforms," the commission says in its report.

"This is a starting point," said Mike Wade, executive director of the California Farm Water Coalition. "Any time you can look at (a bureaucracy) of that size and look for ways to improve its efficiency, it's worth doing."

Wade also cautioned that no fix is likely to come free of pitfalls.

"There is an upside and a downside to any way the structure changes," he said.

The report points out that key elements of California's water planning and management -- water rights accounting and enforcement, flow recommendations and bond-spending decisions -- are too diffused, spread across various departments in three state agencies.

"The state lacks the comprehensive view of water use and demand needed for meaningful management and long-term planning," the report says.

The state's "inability to develop a comprehensive approach to water management and planning" has resulted in a process whereby legislative action re-allocates water to environmental needs in unpredictable patterns, the commission says.

That inability stems from a lack of funding or political will, according to the commission.

While water management will never be free of litigation and uncertainty, the state can minimize those factors by centralizing its efforts and making them more consistent, transparent and accountable, the report says.

"Despite the courts' best efforts, policy driven by litigation very often reflects the objectives and priorities of those with access to the courts to the exclusion of those stakeholders who do not," it says.

Sarah Woolf, spokeswoman for the agricultural Westlands Water District in the San Joaquin Valley, says the positive and negative points of centralizing governance require further debate.

"If we were to centralize water decisions, that would be disconcerting because water use is extremely regional," Woolf said.

-- Wes Sander

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