California Law Threatens Watershed Restoration Projects

An obscure California law may threaten watershed restoration efforts across the state. At issue are the use of volunteers — a common practice by watershed-restoration groups perpetually strapped for cash — and a 2001 law mandating that all workers on public-works projects be paid the prevailing market wage for their work. Last year, a labor union complained when one of its members saw volunteers operating heavy machinery, and the state Department of Industrial Relations ordered a local environmental group to pay $50,000 in fines and back wages (the group is appealing). The law, which expanded the definition of a public-works project in such a way that it included watershed restoration efforts, was written by state Sen. Richard Alarcon (D), who said through a spokesperson that he never intended to curtail volunteer work. Enviros hope that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) will overturn the department’s position; state Assemblyperson Loni Hancock (D) has also introduced legislation that would explicitly exempt environmental restoration projects from the law, though it likely wouldn’t go into effect until next year.