Top Water Resources Official Quits Citing Newsom Drought Record

After years of service, a board manager has no faith in Newsom’s tactics, and warns his former colleagues that things will get much worse

Max Gomberg quit his job as the Climate and Conservation Manager of California’s State Water Resources Control Board earlier this month with a dire warning about “dark and uncertain times” for his colleagues, who he believes are “complicit” in Governor Gavin Newsom’s mishandling of a water crisis.

“Witnessing the agency’s ability to tackle big challenges nearly eviscerated by this Administration has been gut wrenching,” he wrote in a public email to colleagues after a decade of recommending strategies to make the state more water resilient. “The way some of you have simply rolled over and accepted this has also been difficult to watch.”

If that wasn’t heavy enough, Gomberg opened his missive with, “These are dark and uncertain times, both because fascists are regaining power and because climate change is rapidly decreasing the habitability of many places.” He also shared his view that the drought-stricken state “is not on a path” to “quickly and permanently reducing agriculture to manage the loss of water to aridification.”

Although he didn’t mention Newsom by name in the letter, former climate and conservation manager elaborated on his concerns about the Governor in an interview the Los Angeles Times on Thursday.

“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 argued. “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.”

Gomberg told the Times he’s speaking out after a “long list” of policy proposals were met with resistance, 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.

His issue with Newsom began when the governor removed Felicia Marcus as water board chair—a decision Gomberg said signaled “a retreat from using the board’s regulatory authority.” He believes the board, now led by Chair E. Joaquin Esquivel, has since been “allowed a much narrower range of regulatory actions.”

Esquivel, on the other hand, told the Times that in the last 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.”

Gov. Newsom’s office also disagrees with Gomberg. Spokesperson Erin Mellon told the Times, “This Governor is doing more than any other state to adapt to our changing climate. 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.”

One of the biggest issues, in Gomberg’s view, is the California agricultural industry consuming nearly 80 percent of water pumped and diverted each year. “It’s not sustainable,” he told the Times.

“I think California needs an agriculture policy,” he 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.”

He ended his farewell to colleagues by expressing gratitude for “working with dedicated and caring people on important policies. Together we have advanced safe, accessible, and affordable water for marginalized communities, reduced urban water waste, and forced conversations about equity within the climate resilience discourse.”

Still, he had more strong words for those remaining on the California State Water Resources Control Board. “Some of you need to dig deep and find your moral compass. If you cannot do that you should step aside and let others lead.”

[Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that while we previously referred to Max Gomberg as a “member of the board,” he was in fact the Climate and Conservation Manager of California’s State Water Resources Control Board.]

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