In March 1928, the St. Francis (San Francisquito) Dam, located northeast of Castaic in Los Angeles County near the Ventura County line failed due to a then undetectable geological weakness in the bedrock unleashing 12 billion gallons of water. The dam’s failure killed over 600 people, demolished 1,200 houses, washed out 10 bridges, and caused property losses in the millions of dollars. The 200-foot tall 700-foot wide dam at the southern end of the aqueduct, designed by the General Manager and Chief Engineer William Mulholland for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, was designed to bring water from the Owens River to the San Fernando Valley. It was part of the Los Angeles Aqueduct system, creating a storage reservoir for the Owens Valley water supply.
When the dam failed, an enormous wall of water thundered down the narrow valley of the Santa Clara River. Almost fifty miles downstream in the town of Santa Paula, the crest of the flood was still some 25 feet high. The number of lives lost in this disaster rivaled that of the great fire in San Francisco. The collapse of the St. Francis Dam is still considered to be one of the worst American civil engineering disasters of the 20th century and remains the incident causing the second-greatest loss of life in California's history to date.
Kuntz (1976) reported that the failure unified all previously splintered political and professional factions behind the need for legislation to regulate the design, construction, and maintenance of all dams, except those owned and controlled by the federal government. Consequently, the legislature determined that the unregulated engineering profession and the design of construction projects constituted a hazard to the public health and safety.
Following the catastrophic dam failure, on August 14, 1929, CA enacted its first registration legislation. This legislation required registration of all Civil Engineers, but excluded other engineering disciplines at their request. This law was known as the Civil Engineers Act, the intent of which was to safeguard life, health, and property. Until 1947, the majority of activity surrounding the act involved procedural matters. Eighteen years later, the legislature established the State Board of Registration for Civil and Professional Engineers in the Department of Professional and Vocational Standards.
At that time, the scope of registration of Professional Engineers was expanded to include chemical, electrical, mechanical, and petroleum engineering. This 1947 action, however, only licensed the titles but not the practice of the respective disciplines. In 1974, the legislature passed a new law which authorized the Board to approve any future engineering disciplines as necessary for the protection of the public health and safety. Inherent in this was the authority for the board to recognize new disciplines and establish grandfathering periods for them. In 1986, the authority to create new engineering registration categories was removed from the Board by their own request.
CA currently regulates the use of the practice and the use of the title of Civil, Electrical, and Mechanical Engineer. These three are known as Practice Acts. Only those registered are authorized to use the title, practice, or offer to practice in that discipline. Two additional title Authorities are available for those who have attained Civil registration. They are Structural and Geotechnical. Only those registered as a Geotechnical or Structural Engineer may use the title.
Any Civil Engineer may practice, or offer to practice Geotechnical or Structural engineering with the exception of public schools and hospitals, which require registration as a Structural Engineer. Additionally, the Board tests and issues licenses for nine Title Acts which are agricultural, chemical, control systems, fire protection, industrial, metallurgical, nuclear, petroleum, and traffic engineering.
Title Act registrants must take and pass the same fundamentals exam (the Engineer in Training, or FEIT exam) as Practice Act registrants, in addition to specific exams in their Title area. Current law does not define or regulate the practice of these nine areas, only the use of the title. Anyone may practice, or offer to practice in these disciplines as long as they do not use the title.
During the initial period of establishing these registrations and inherent restrictions, the use of grandfathering became necessary. Licensees already registered in another state are not required to meet additional requirements. All other candidates seeking comity registration are required to take and pass a take home examination which requires a passing score of at least 70%. Those seeking Civil registration are required to take and pass the CA Special Civil Exam which consists of seismic and surveying questions.
Current state statues allow for sixteen different exemptions to registration. Most notable among those are the Federal Employees Exemption, the Communications Industry Exemption, and the most widely used Industrial Exemption. These were established around the belief that the federal government and industry are self-regulating with respect to protection of the public health and safety. In essence, current law requires that the engineer who designs the highway or airport runway must be registered, while the engineer working in industry that designs the automobile or airplane that travels on them is exempted from registration. It is estimated that approximately 70% of the engineering practiced in CA is performed by those covered under one of these exemptions.
The Board of Registration for Civil Engineers was created in 1929 due to the failure of the Saint Francis Dam (Chapter 766, Statutes of 1929). A law was then enacted requiring the registration of civil engineers. When Committee hearings on the bill were held, a difference of opinion developed between proponents of registration by branch and those who favored registration in the category of professional engineer only.
Opposition also developed from those engineers who were against the philosophy of licensing in general. The mining engineers strongly objected to any regulation of their activities as did some representatives of the mechanical and electrical engineering groups. Because the principle opposition came from groups who practiced in branches other than civil engineering, the bill was amended to exclude them and require registration of civil engineers only. It was in this form that Assembly Bill 174 was signed by the Governor (Chapter 801, Statutes of 1929). Initially the area of overlap between architecture and engineering was considered relatively unimportant, but as taller and taller buildings were being created it became a source of increasing controversy. To resolve the disputed area of overlap between architecture and structural engineering, a solution was offered creating the title authority of structural engineer. Registered civil engineers who were found to be qualified in structural engineering could use the title structural engineer. Civil engineers sponsored legislation creating the structural engineer title authority (Chapter 254, Statutes of 1931). In 1933, the Board’s jurisdiction was expanded to include the licensing of land surveyors.
The technical advances made during the forties, possibly due to World War II, resulted in the registration, by title, of engineers in the branches of chemical, electrical, mechanical, and petroleum engineering. This was done through legislation in 1947. For the next twenty years, there were many influences of varying importance which contributed to the rapid advancement of engineering. The more noteworthy of these influences included the Korean War, the struggle for missile supremacy, and the race for exploration and control of space. Because of the more specialized use of electrical and mechanical engineering, the law was amended in 1967 to change electrical and mechanical engineering from title act registrations to practice act registrations. Also in 1967, the legislature created the title disciplines of metallurgical and industrial engineering which the Board opposed.
A bill was then passed by the Legislature (Chapter 895, Statutes of 1968) which gave the authority to create new title acts to the Board. That bill also contained a provision that required any group of engineers applying for registration with the Board to first have in place an accredited college program in their respective branch of engineering. This made it very difficult for any new groups to apply for registration.
Several years passed, and the composition of the Board changed. In 1971, legislation was passed repealing the provision relating to the requirement that a discipline be covered by an accredited program. This legislation had the effect of removing a major road block to the various disciplines seeking to apply to the Board for recognition, and various groups petitioned the Board for registration.
In the early seventies, the Board received petitions from persons representing the branches of aerospace, agriculture, air pollution, communication, control system, corrosion, environmental, fire protection, manufacturing, nuclear, quality, safety, and traffic engineering. Hearings were held, and all petitions were approved except for the petitions of air pollution, aerospace, communication, and environmental engineers.
In 1976 and 1977, the Board was finally able to adopt formal regulations to implement the engineering disciplines which it had recognized over the proceeding years.
In 1982, the title authority of geotechnical engineer was added to the practice of civil engineering by the Legislature (Chapter 646, Statutes of 1982).
In 1985, Senate Bill 1030 (Chapter 732, Statutes of 1985) was passed by the Legislature with support from this Board. The bill amended Section 6732 of the Business and Professions (B&P) Code to codify the existing engineering disciplines into the Professional Engineers Act, thereby recognizing them by statute rather than by Board Rule. It also repealed Section 6700.1 of the B&P Code which allowed for the establishment of new engineering disciplines by petition to the Board.
In 1999, due to the continually low number of applicants for the three title acts of corrosion, quality, and safety, and based on recommendations by the Sunset Review Committee, these three title act registrations were eliminated.
In 2003, NCEES stopped preparing the examination for the title act of manufacturing, so it was eliminated.
There are nine remaining title acts licensed by the Board: agricultural, chemical, control systems, fire protection, industrial, metallurgical, nuclear, petroleum, and traffic engineering.
Legislation enacted during the 4th Extraordinary Session of 2009 (ABX4 20) eliminated the Board for Geologists and Geophysicists and transferred all of the duties, powers, purposes, responsibilities, and jurisdiction to regulate the practices of geology and geophysicists to the Board for Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors. The transfer of authority became effective October 23, 2009.