Gavin Newsom’s ‘Culture of Distrust’ revealed by his former Water Conservation Manager.

Article/interview by John Earl, cross-posted from SoCal Water Wars (formerly Surf City Voice)

This is the first of two parts from my interview with Max Gomberg that took place recently in Santa Monica, in which he talks about how he got to work for the water board and the differences in management styles between Gov. Jerry Brown and Newsom that led to his departure.

Max Gomberg served as a conservation manager for the California State Water Resources Control Board for ten years under Governors Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom. Working there, he faced challenges from two historic droughts, climate change, and the pandemic.

Gomberg resigned in July of last year in a letter addressed to “everyone.” In it, he warned of “dark and uncertain times” due to rising fascism and decreasing habitability on Earth from human-caused climate change.

Gomberg slammed the Governor’s failure to adequately respond to those issues. “Sadly,” he wrote, “this state is not on a path towards steep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.”

Gomberg looks at climate change and water management though an environmental-justice lens. He calls for massive housing construction instead of more prisons, reduced law enforcement budgets, and sharp cutbacks in big-agriculture in order to reallocate “resources to programs that actually increase public health and safety.”

He accuses Gov. Newsom of blocking the ability of his handpicked water board to respond to climate change with policies that promote the reasonable use of water and environmental justice.

Max Gomberg. Picture by SoCal Water Wars.

SoCal Water Wars: You worked at the State Water Board for about ten years. How did you get that job?

Max Gomberg: Attending graduate school in Los Angeles, I longed to return to the Bay Area where I knew more people. In my first summer back I enjoyed working as an intern ratepayer advocate at the Public Utilities Commission.

So I applied for two full-time jobs at the PUC. One was on the water side and one was on the energy side.

A lot of bright and motivated people were already coming into the energy sector because of its existing dynamism, developing energy renewables and moving away from fossil fuels.

Water was the stepchild at the PUC and always will be because there’s less to regulate there. I felt I could do more on the water side. I haven’t looked back since.

I was an advocate at the PUC for about five years and had gotten involved with the legislative subcommittee for AB 32, the big climate change law that passed in 2006. Following that, the state government organized various agency climate groups.

One of those groups had the funny name, WETCAT, the Water and Energy Team of the Climate Action Committee.

Through my PUC acquaintances, I started going to meetings. One of the facilitators was Fran Spivy-Weber (right) who was on the State Water Board.

I really wanted to be involved in statewide policy making. And you can’t do that if you’re in water at the PUC. I knew I needed to have a Sacramento job, and Fran encouraged me.

About a year later she said, “Hey, actually we’re going to be able to hire someone.’” Because when AB 32 was passed, the state created a whole bunch of new positions to implement it. A couple of those positions were spun off to the Water Board.

So I was the first person hired specifically to work climate at the Water Board. In 2014, the state went into drought and I got a budget for building up drought-response staff. In 2015, I wrote legislation to start regulation on water loss from leaks. That was SB 555.

I also took on low-income water rate assistance through AB 401, passed in 2015.

So I started building up the staff and sort of became manager, creating a team that had never existed before and covered a bunch of issues under the banner of climate during the administrations of Gov. Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom.

Most of that evolution took place under the Brown administration. When Newsom came in (2019), I had my team, but it grew some due to 2018 legislation for water conservation standards.

SoCal Water Wars: What was it like working under Newsom? Were you in touch with him?

Max Gomberg: I didn’t work directly under him and never interacted with him. I did interact directly with various people who worked directly for Brown when he was governor.

But the work-dynamic became very different under Newsom.

SoCal Water Wars: How so?

Max Gomberg: Brown was hands off. He had a small staff and trusted his department heads to run things without much oversight. There are agency secretaries, the state cabinet, and Brown gave them a lot of latitude to be innovative.

From 2012 through 2018 I had a lot more room to be creative; to say, “Hey, I’d like to write a bill on this and run with it.” There was a lot of willingness in the Brown administration to [let us] go for it and see what happens.

SoCal Water Wars: You didn’t feel inhibited under the Brown administration.

Max Gomberg: Right. Then the Newsom administration came in with a major priority that the Brown hadn’t accomplished: pass a safe drinking water bill to protect low-income high-unemployment communities that lacked clean water supplies.

Governor Newsom and legislators meet with Sanger residents who lack access to safe drinking water.
Photo: State of California

The state’s primary way of funding drinking water is through the State Revolving Fund, a federal program. Those funds can only be used for building infrastructure, not for ongoing operations and maintenance. Advocates had been pushing for years to get the state to approve some type of fund for that.

Newsom promised, “I’m going to get this done.” And he did in 2019 by signing SB 200.

To be fair, that was a major accomplishment for which he deserves credit. But he also deserves all the subsequent criticism he received for other water-management decisions he made.

But the water board needed to make a plan to spend the money, once we got it, efficiently and in line with community needs, toward a sustainable provision of safe drinking water.

So I was put on assignment by Newsom’s staff and told that my new priority was to work with a leadership group within the water board to create that plan…

Read the rest at SoCal Water Wars!


Read pt 2 of the interview, “Scrap Racist & Outdated Water Rights!”

About Surf City Voice

John Earl is the editor of the Surf City Voice. Frequent contributor Debbie Cook, a former Huntington Beach Mayor, is board president of the Post Carbon Institute.