It’s no secret that California is at least several years into a serious water crisis. Rising to the challenge of this crisis will require sacrifice on the part of all of our citizens. In particular, our state’s top politicians must have the courage and vision to help lead us out of this mess or things will only get worse. 


As it turns out, one of California’s top politicians is our local representative in the state Assembly, Democrat Chris Holden. First elected to the Assembly in 2012, the former Pasadena City Council member has already risen in his second term to the post of Majority Floor Leader, second in rank only to the Assembly Speaker in the Democratic chain of command. His has been a rather meteoric rise to the top of the power structure in Sacramento.


This brings us to a little story about what happened recently in the Assembly to a common-sense piece of legislation, Assembly Bill 356, or the Oil and Gas: Groundwater Monitoring Bill. Introduced by Assemblyman Das Williams (D-Carpinteria), this bill would have required the monitoring of groundwater near injection wells that are used to dispose of waste water from conventional oil and natural gas extraction wells as well as those stimulated by fracking or acidizing.   


The waste water from fracked or acidized oil and gas wells is contaminated with brine and chemicals, some of which are very hazardous to human health, and there is major concern that these harmful compounds could end up contaminating underground aquifers from which drinking and irrigation water are obtained.


Let us recall just how important these aquifers have become during our current drought. Central Valley farmers, according to reports in the Los Angeles Times, are drilling into and pumping them like crazy in a desperate attempt to obtain water for their thirsty crops. At the same time, other places in the Central Valley, such as the Porterville area, have pumped their aquifers so much that groundwater levels have plummeted and wells and faucets are now running dry, the Times reports. Groundwater is being rapidly depleted all over our state and to contaminate it in any way is potentially a criminal act.


Back to AB-356, which would have required the monitoring of groundwater aquifers to get baseline readings now, before contamination occurs. Sounds pretty sane and sensible, right? What harm could this collection of scientific data possibly do, and without it how will we know when contamination of an aquifer has occurred? 


Guess what? The Assembly recently rejected AB-356. How and why did this happen? This is where Holden comes into the picture. After supporting AB-356 in a May 28 vote in the Appropriations Committee, Holden failed to vote on the bill when it reached the Assembly floor on June 4. He was joined in not recording a floor vote on AB-356 by 19 other Assembly members, 16 of whom are Democrats.  


As a result, AB-356 failed to get the 41 “yes” votes it needed for passage. So, in this case, Holden’s failure to vote was essentially a “no” vote and AB-356 was killed. As the Majority Leader in the Assembly, Holden almost certainly influenced the other 15 Democrats who did not vote on this bill and, if so, is the person most responsible for its demise. Both phone and email inquiries to Holden’s Pasadena office seeking an explanation were not answered.


This is not the first time Holden has failed to vote on bills that will affect the oil and gas industry. How do we explain his dereliction of duty? After all, the voters don’t send politicians to Sacramento so they can fail to take a stand on important pieces of legislation.


It turns out that Holden is beholden to the oil and gas industry. According to a report released last year by California Common Cause and the ACCE Institute, “Big Oil Floods the Capital,” in 2013 he accepted $7,100 from the oil industry. While that may not sound like much money, 2013 was only Holden’s first year in the Assembly. At this rate, and if he remains in state government for more than a decade in either the Assembly or Senate, he could easily zoom to the top of the “Big Oil” list.   


If our state is going to survive the drought we’re currently experiencing, people and their water needs must be put first and the oil industry is going to have to sacrifice as much as if not more than the rest of us. Assemblyman Holden’s lack of leadership is not what we need now from California politicians. Let us hope he finds the courage to do the right thing the next time he gets an opportunity to vote on AB-356 or whatever legislation replaces it.

John Grula, Ph.D., is affiliated with the Southern California Federation of Scientists.