Frequently Asked Questions
Are you curious about a term in the media?
Or something we've posted about?
We have the answers.
Note below is very basic definitions. Most of these topics are much more complicated. Below contains no legal advice. More information on Water Rights at the Waterboard Website
What are water rights?
In water law, the right of a user to use water from a water source (i.e., a lake, river, stream, creek, pond, or source of groundwater).
Do I need water rights?
Yes, if you take water from a lake, river, stream, or creek, or from underground supplies for beneficial use, the California Water Code (Division 2) requires that you have a water right. If you take and use a small amount of water only for domestic purposes or use a small amount of water for commercial livestock watering purposes, you need a water right of some type.
How do water rights affect me?
If your food was grown and/or raised by California farmers or ranchers, you depend on someone who either has a water right or buys water from a water supplier who has a water right (such as an irrigation district).
If you live in the city or suburbs and drink, cook with, wash with, or water your yard with water, you are able to do so because your city has a water right or buys water from someone who has a water right.
When you turn on your lights or use appliances in California, it is likely that at least some of the electricity you are using was generated by a power company that is able to operate a hydropower plant because it has a water right.
If you swim, fish, or boat in a man-made lake or raft below a dam, you are able to do so because the dam owner has a water right.
Riparian water rights:
"Riparian rights gained legal recognition after California was granted statehood. Under the law, owners of land that physically touches a water source have a right to use water from that source that has not been deemed appropriated by another party."
- Water Education Foundation
"A prescriptive right is a right that is acquired through adverse possession of someone else's water right. It is similar to a “squatter's right” to land. Prescriptive rights are difficult to obtain and can only be granted by a court. Most people in California do not have and cannot acquire a prescriptive right. The courts have clarified that since 1914, the only way to acquire a new water right is to apply for and receive a water right permit from the State Water Board."
- CA Water Board
"California law allows surface water to be diverted at one point and used (appropriated) beneficially at a separate point.
This is in contrast to a riparian right, which is based on ownership of the property adjacent to the water.
An appropriative right to use water exists without regard to the special relationship between land and water. It is based on physical control, beneficial use and, if initiated after 1914, on a permit or license. Appropriative rights may attach to surface water that exists in excess of superior riparian claims, and to groundwater. They depend upon continued use and may be lost by non-use. Appropriative rights may be sold or transferred. Unlike riparian rights, long-term storage of water is considered an acceptable exercise of an appropriative right."
- Water Education Foundation
Difference between Riparian & Appropriate Rights:
"If a land parcel touches the waterway and the landowner diverts water from the waterway and uses it on the parcel that touches the waterway, that’s a riparian right; if the water is used in a parcel that doesn’t touch the waterway, in general, that’s an appropriate right."
- MAVEN'S NOTEBOOK
Public Process Laws and Steps
2 Most Important Laws
Nation Environmental Policy Act - NEPA
California Environmental Quality Act - CEQA
Requirements of NEPA & CEQA
A Scoping process (30 days of public comment periods)
Draft of Environmental Impact Statement or Environmental Assessment
Decision Notice/Biological Opinion/Finding of No Significant Impact
Public comments periods also trigger other related regulatory processes and environmental reviews such as:
The Endangered Species Act (ESA)
California Endangered Species Act (CESA)
The Clean Water Act (CWA)
The Clean Water Act 404 04 401 (CWA 404)
ESA or CESA is triggered when a project affects the habitat of a species present that is listed as endangered or threatened. It also identifies habitat that is critical for the species’ survival and requires government agencies to develop a recovery plan for the listed species.
**The laws above allow the public to have a say over water by requiring public comment periods. During this time it is ideal to strengthen alliances, create campaigns, and file lawsuits. Now, get out there and let your voice be heard!
**It’s important to note that a Biological Opinion or Finding of No Significant Impact can be affected by politics, the needs of commerce, and corporate influence.
TERMS TO KNOW
The amount of water is necessary when reasonable intelligence and diligence are used for a stated purpose. Beneficial uses include domestic and municipal uses, industrial use, irrigation, mining, hydroelectric power, navigation, recreation, public parks, wildlife, and game preserves.
Public Domain Lands:
"Public domain lands include any land or interest in land owned by the United States and administered by the Secretary of the Interior through the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Compare with public domain."
Establishes who has priority water rights over specific volumes of water, this process can take years to complete. A river system or groundwater basin can be adjudicated, not adjudicated, or partially adjudicated.
State Agencies in California Involved in Water Rgihts
Note: Resources Inspired by Water Education Foundation's Aquapedia
California Environmental Protection Agency
"Our mission is to restore, protect and enhance the environment, to ensure public health, environmental quality and economic vitality.
We fulfill our mission by developing, implementing and enforcing environmental laws that regulate air, water and soil quality, pesticide use and waste recycling and reduction. Our departments are at the forefront of environmental science, using the most recent research to shape the state’s environmental laws.
The Office of the Secretary heads CalEPA overseeing and coordinating the activities of one office, two boards, and three departments dedicated to improving California’s environment."
"DWR manages California's water resources, systems, and infrastructure, including the State Water Project (SWP), in a responsible, sustainable way.
Our responsibilities and duties include:
Preventing and responding to floods, droughts, and catastrophic events
Informing and educating the public on water issues
Developing scientific solutions
Planning for future water needs, climate change impacts, and flood protection
Constructing and maintaining facilities
Ensuring public safety
Providing recreational opportunities"
"With a team of scientists and other dedicated professionals, the Department of Conservation (DOC) administers a variety of programs vital to California's public safety, environment and economy. The services DOC provides are designed to balance today's needs with tomorrow's obligations by fostering the wise use and conservation of energy, land and mineral resources. "
California Department of Fish and Wildlife
CDFW manages fish, wildlife and plant resources and their ecological habitats.
California Department of Public Health
"The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) works to protect the public's health in the Golden State and helps shape positive health outcomes for individuals, families and communities. The Department's programs and services, implemented in collaboration with local health departments and state, federal and private partners, touch the lives of every Californian and visitor to the state 24 hours a day, 7 days a week."
California Energy Commission
"The California Energy Commission is leading the state to a 100 percent clean energy future for all. As the state's primary energy policy and planning agency, the Energy Commission is committed to reducing energy costs and environmental impacts of energy use while ensuring a safe, resilient, and reliable supply of energy."
California Natural Resources Agency
"The California Natural Resources Agency oversees and supports more than 26 distinct departments, conservancies, and commissions. Our Agency Executive Team leads efforts to steward California’s natural environment and to advance Governor Newsom’s key priorities.
Over 21,000 Californians work within our Agency all across the state to meet our mission “to restore, protect and manage the state's natural, historical and cultural resources for current and future generations using creative approaches and solutions based on science, collaboration, and respect for all the communities and interests involved."
California Regional Water Quality Resources Control Boards
"The State Water Resources Control Board (State Water Board) and the nine Regional Water Quality Control Boards (Regional Water Boards), collectively known as the California Water Boards (Water Boards), are dedicated to a single vision: abundant clean water for human uses and environmental protection to sustain California's future. Under the federal Clean Water Act (CWA) and the state's pioneering Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act, the State and Regional Water Boards have regulatory responsibility for protecting the water quality of nearly 1.6 million acres of lakes, 1.3 million acres of bays and estuaries, 211,000 miles of rivers and streams, and about 1,100 miles of exquisite California coastline."
The Water Boards regulate wastewater discharges to surface water (rivers, ocean, etc.) and to groundwater (via land). The Water Boards also regulate storm water discharges from construction, industrial, and municipal activities; discharges from irrigated agriculture; dredge and fill activities; the alteration of any federal water body under the 401 certification program; and several other activities with practices that could degrade water quality.
We categorize our work into the following programs:
Dredge/Fill (401) Wetlands
Land Disposal (landfills, waste piles, etc.)
Non-subchapter 15 (WDR)
National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) (surface water)
Sanitary Sewer Overflows (SSO)
"The State Water Resources Control Board has jurisdiction throughout California. Created by the State
Legislature in 1967, the Board protects water quality by setting statewide policy, coordinating and supporting the Regional Water Board efforts, and reviewing petitions that contest Regional Board actions. There are nine
regional water quality control boards that exercise rulemaking and regulatory activities by basins."
Region 1 -- North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board:
Del Norte, Glenn, Humboldt, Lake, Marin, Mendocino, Modoc, Siskiyou, Sonoma, and
Region 2 -- San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board:
Alameda, Contra Costa, San Francisco, Santa Clara (north of Morgan Hill), San Mateo,
Marin, Sonoma, Napa, Solano counties.
Region 3 -- Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board:
Santa Clara (south of Morgan Hill), San Mateo (southern portion), Santa Cruz, San
Benito, Monterey, Kern (small portions), San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Ventura
(northern portion) counties.
California Water Commission
"The California Water Commission consists of nine members appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the State Senate. Seven members are chosen for their expertise related to the control, storage, and beneficial use of water and two are chosen for their knowledge of the environment. The Commission provides a public forum for discussing water issues, advises the Director of the Department of Water Resources on matters within the Department’s jurisdiction, approves rules and regulations, and monitors and reports on the construction and operation of the State Water Project. Proposition 1: The Water Quality, Supply, and Infrastructure Improvement Act approved by voters in 2014, gave the Commission new responsibilities regarding the distribution of public funds set aside for the public benefits of water storage projects, and developing regulations for the quantification and management of those benefits. In 2018, the Commission made maximum conditional eligibility determinations for eight projects in the Water Storage Investment Program."
California Water Quality Monitoring Council
"In November 2007, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed by the Secretaries of the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) and the California Natural Resources Agency to establish the California Water Quality Monitoring Council (Monitoring Council). The MOU was mandated by CA Senate Bill 1070 (Kehoe, 2006) and requires the boards, departments and offices within the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) and the California Natural Resources Agency to integrate and coordinate their water quality and related ecosystem monitoring, assessment, and reporting.
Water Code Sections 13167 and 13181 and the MOU require that the Monitoring Council develop specific recommendations to improve the coordination and cost-effectiveness of water quality and ecosystem monitoring and assessment, enhance the integration of monitoring data across departments and agencies, and increase public accessibility to monitoring data and assessment information. While the Monitoring Council may recommend new monitoring or management initiatives, it will build on existing efforts to the greatest extent possible. The Monitoring Council published its initial recommendations in December 2008, and its recommendations for A Comprehensive Monitoring Program Strategy for California in December 2010. The Membership of the Monitoring Council is intended to represent a variety of water quality related interests. Monitoring Council members are selected by the Secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA)."
California Wildlife Conservation Board
"The Wildlife Conservation Board (WCB) was created by legislation in 1947 to administer a capital outlay program for wildlife conservation and related public recreation. Originally created within the California Department of Natural Resources, and later placed with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, WCB is a separate and independent Board with authority and funding to carry out an acquisition and development program for wildlife conservation (California Fish and Game Code 1300, et seq.). WCB's seven-member Board consists of the President of the Fish and Game Commission, the Director of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Director of the Department of Finance, and four public members, two appointed by the legislature and two by the Governor. Legislation that created WCB also established a Legislative Advisory Committee consisting of three members of the Senate and three members of the Assembly, which meet with WCB, providing legislative oversight.
The primary responsibilities of WCB are to select, authorize and allocate funds for the purchase of land and waters suitable for recreation purposes and the preservation, protection and restoration of wildlife habitat. WCB approves and funds projects that set aside lands within the State for such purposes, through acquisition or other means, to meet these objectives. WCB can also authorize the construction of facilities for recreational purposes on property in which it has a proprietary interest."
Central Valley Flood Protection Board
"The Central Valley Flood Protection Board (CVFPB) is the State regulatory agency responsible for ensuring that appropriate standards are met for the construction, maintenance, and protection of the flood control system that protects life, property, and wildlife habitat in California’s vast and diverse Central Valley from the devastating effects of flooding. CVFPB issues encroachment permits and works with other agencies to improve the flood protection structures, enforces removal of problematic encroachments, and keeps watch over the Central Valley’s continually improving flood management system."
"The California Coastal Commission was established by voter initiative in 1972 (Proposition 20) and later made permanent by the Legislature through adoption of the California Coastal Act of 1976.
In partnership with coastal cities and counties, The Coastal Commission plans and regulates the use of land and water in the coastal zone. Development activities, which are broadly defined by the Coastal Act to include (among others) construction of buildings, divisions of land, and activities that change the intensity of use of land or public access to coastal waters, generally require a coastal permit from either the Coastal Commission or the local government.
The Coastal Act includes specific policies (see Division 20 of the Public Resources Code) that address issues such as shoreline public access and recreation, lower cost visitor accommodations, terrestrial and marine habitat protection, visual resources, landform alteration, agricultural lands, commercial fisheries, industrial uses, water quality, offshore oil and gas development, transportation, development design, power plants, ports, and public works. The policies of the Coastal Act constitute the statutory standards applied to planning and regulatory decisions made by the Commission and by local governments, pursuant to the Coastal Act.
The Commission is an independent, quasi-judicial state agency. The Commission is composed of twelve voting members, appointed equally (four each) by the Governor, the Senate Rules Committee, and the Speaker of the Assembly. Six of the voting commissioners are locally elected officials and six are appointed from the public at large. Three ex officio (non-voting) members represent the Resources Agency, the California State Transportation Agency, and the State Lands Commission.
The coastal zone, which was specifically mapped by the Legislature, covers an area larger than the State of Rhode Island. On land the coastal zone varies in width from several hundred feet in highly urbanized areas up to five miles in certain rural areas, and offshore the coastal zone includes a three-mile-wide band of ocean. The coastal zone established by the Coastal Act does not include San Francisco Bay, where development is regulated by the Bay Conservation and Development Commission."
"The Coastal Conservancy is a state agency, established in 1976, to protect and improve natural lands and waterways, to help people get to and enjoy the outdoors, and to sustain local economies along California’s coast. The Conservancy is a non-regulatory agency that supports projects to protect coastal resources and increase opportunities for the public to enjoy the coast. The Conservancy implements statewide resource plans through its projects, including the California Water Action Plan, the Wildlife Action Plan, and many others. The Conservancy works along the entire length of California’s coast and within the watersheds of rivers and streams that extend inland from the coast. The Coastal Conservancy also works throughout the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area and the entire Santa Ana River watershed. A map of the Conservancy’s jurisdiction is posted here.
The Conservancy provides technical assistance and grant funding to local communities, nonprofit organizations, other government agencies, businesses, and private landowners to implement multi-benefit projects that:
protect the natural and scenic beauty of the coast
enhance wildlife habitat
help the public to get to and enjoy beaches and parklands
keep farmland and timberlands in production
improve water quality
revitalize working waterfronts
prepare communities for the impacts of climate change
The Conservancy has played a critical role in shaping California’s coastal landscape as we know it today. Since its creation, the Conservancy has built hundreds of miles of trails and preserved hundreds of thousands of acres of wildlife habitat, coastal farmland, and scenic open space. Many of the most-loved scenic, natural, and recreational resources of the California coast and the San Francisco Bay Area have been protected by the work of the Conservancy and its many partners."
"The Colorado River Board of California was established in 1937 to protect California’s rights and interests in the resources provided by the Colorado River and to represent California in discussions and negotiations regarding the Colorado River and its management. California’s Water Code, sections 12500-12560, provides the legal authorization for the Board.
Seven counties in Southern California receive water and hydroelectric energy from the Colorado River. Colorado River water is used for drinking water by over 19 million people in Southern California and irrigates over 600,000 acres of agricultural lands that produce fruits, vegetables,and other crops that help feed our nation’s families.
or the past 75 years the Colorado River Board of California has been charged with:
Maintaining or increasing the quantity of California’s Colorado River water resources.
Representing California in discussions among the Colorado River Basin States, Indian Tribes, the federal government and others in implementing joint cooperative programs to protect California’s use of Colorado River water and to address environmental and endangered species issues.
Addressing issues relating to the 1944 U.S.-Mexico Water Treaty through cooperative efforts with the U.S. International Boundary and Water Commission and other states."
"The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Conservancy (Conservancy) is a primary state agency in the implementation of ecosystem restoration in the Delta. We support efforts that advance environmental protection and the economic well-being of Delta residents. The Conservancy collaborates and cooperates with local communities and other parties to preserve, protect, and restore the natural resources, economy, and agriculture of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and Suisun Marsh."
"The Delta Protection Commission is committed to the protection and health of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in California. We protect, maintain, enhance and enrich the overall quality of the Delta environment and economy. We do this with a focus on agriculture, heritage, recreation, and natural resources while remaining mindful of the importance of the Delta to all Californians. Valuing the needs of the Delta as well as the needs of the State is fundamental to achieving the Commission’s vision: an ideal synthesis of cultural, ecological, and agricultural values in a sustainable, healthy, and celebrated way of life."
"In November 2009, the California Legislature passed SBX7 1 (Delta Reform Act), one of several special session bills enacted that year related to water supply reliability, ecosystem health, and the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Among other things, the Act created the Delta Stewardship Council, effective on February 3, 2010. The Council is made up of seven members who provide a broad, statewide perspective and diverse expertise spanning agriculture, science, the environment, public service, and beyond. Of the seven members, four are appointed by the Governor, one each by the Senate and Assembly, and the seventh member is the Chair of the Delta Protection Commission."
Facts from their website:
California’s first National Heritage Area is in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
27 million Californians rely on the Delta for at least some portion of their water.
The Delta Stewardship Council was created to align Delta decision-making with science.
More than 750 plant and animal species can be found in the Delta.
The Delta supports a $50 billion global agricultural industry.
State Legislative Committees
Note: Following Resources are from the Water Education Foundation's Aquapedia
California Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee
"Reviews pending legislation affecting water resources, flood management, fish and game, parks and recreation, and wildlife."
Committee Jurisdiction: Primary jurisdictions are water resources, flood management, fish and game, parks and recreation, and wildlife.
California Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Water
"Works on bills relating to conservation and management of public resources, fish and wildlife, regulation of oil, mining, geothermal development, acid deposition, wetlands and lakes, global atmospheric effects, ocean and bay pollution, forestry practices, recreation, parks and historical resources and beverage container recycling."