“Welcome to Sacramento, California,” reads the sign that greets Adrianne Davies, Owen McAleer and Gabi Rosenfeld as they step off the airplane. They’ve flown in to provide witness testimony to a State Assembly committee that is considering reforms to California’s groundwater rules. But these three are not representatives of a state agency or local irrigation district. They are second-year students at the UCLA School of Law. And they helped write the bill in question, AB 779.
The trio has about 24 hours to refine their testimony, anticipate questions from the committee members and polish their answers.
“I think all three of us have developed a passion for the bill and really want it to make it through the Legislature,” said Davies, who described feeling nervous but excited. “We’ve been working on the project since last September and went through multiple rounds of research memos and countless stakeholder interviews to develop the final bill proposal.”
Their journey started last fall, when Davies, McAleer and Rosenfeld participated in the California Environmental Legislation and Policy Clinic, a hands-on program that gives students a chance to work directly with California legislators to make law. The clinic is taught by faculty and staff of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment, which is the center of all things environmental at UCLA Law. In past years, clinic students helped write a bill to make working conditions safer for agriculture workers who labor outdoors in the heat, and provided research support for a law that cracks down on single-use plastics that damage the environment.
It was in this legal clinic that the three earned firsthand about California’s complex groundwater adjudication process, which can determine how water rights are allocated in a particular basin. It would lead them down the road to writing new legislation.
Since then, they have worked closely with the office of Assemblymember Lori Wilson, whose district covers parts of Northern California, to engage stakeholders like the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, which advocates for sustainable farming policies. Members of that alliance say the adjudication process can be lengthy, expensive, and opaque — all factors that exacerbate the underrepresentation of disadvantaged communities in the process.
McAleer, who came to UCLA after spending time at an environmental nonprofit, said he and his fellow students came to view the fight over water rights through an equity lens. “Environmental justice is both indispensable and should be part of every project or policy proposal. We are very lucky that our project combines major equity and fairness concerns with technical, cutting-edge water policy.”