Headquartered in Paso Robles, California
California Water Rights Series: Episode 1

California Water Rights Series: Episode 1

California’s Water Rights System: What it is, Why we Need it, and How we All Benefit 

Water: it's perhaps California's most precious natural resource. 

Our booming economy, astronomical agricultural production, and expanding population are intimately tied to the development of our water resources. How much (or little) we have shapes our economy, culture, and the nation at large, making it increasingly important to manage sustainably. 

In this quarter’s article series,  we'll be talking about California's water, the policies and regulations put into place to conserve and prioritize its use, and how that affects farmers, ranchers, and you, right at home.

California’s Water System

According to the California Department of Water Resources, the state receives 75% of its rain and snow in watersheds North of Sacramento. However, 80% of California’s water demand comes from the Southern ⅔ of the state. 

In the 1800s and early 1900s people flocked to our beautiful Central and Southern California areas for the mild climate and agricultural richness. Soon after, several water projects were developed throughout the state to support its growing population and manage the state’s competing needs for water. 

The State Water Project is one of the most extensive networks of dams, reservoirs, power plants, pumping plants, and aqueducts in the world and remains key to both our management of our water resources and our state economy. For example, the Central Valley Project transports water from Lake Shasta to Bakersfield and the southern San Joaquin Valley. The Colorado Aqueduct transports water to Southern California and is the region’s primary source of drinking water. 

These systems, along with several other regulations, work to supply water to farms, ranches, cities, and industry. They also provide flood control, recreational opportunities, and water for fish and wildlife. 

California’s water system is a necessary facet of our daily lives, so the sustainable management of our water resources is crucial–not only to our very survival but also to keeping California an agricultural and economic leader. 

There are many ways California regulates our water resources for sustainable use, one of the most important of which is the water rights system. 

What are Water Rights and How Do They Work?

A water right is legal permission to use a reasonable amount of water for a beneficial purpose such as swimming, fishing, farming, or industry.  Water rights ensure that California’s waters cannot be owned by individuals, groups, businesses, or governmental agencies. Instead, they give individuals and others the right to beneficially use predeclared amounts of water through permits, licenses, and registrations. 

So, how are water rights given out? The State Water Resources Control Board distributes water rights based on a priority system which determines who can continue utilizing water when there is not enough to supply all the needs. This becomes particularly important in times of drought. 

Here is a brief breakdown of how water rights are prioritized and issued as declared by the State Water Board:

“California law distinguishes between surface water and groundwater. To get a right to groundwater, you simply extract the water and use it for a beneficial purpose. There is one exception, which applies to ‘subterranean streams flowing in known and definite channels.’ If you use groundwater on land that is over the groundwater basin from which you took the water, you have an ‘overlying groundwater right.’ If you use the water somewhere else, you have an ‘appropriative groundwater right’.

Overlying groundwater rights have a higher priority than appropriative groundwater rights. The State Water Board does not have authority to issue permits for groundwater diversions, except for diversions from subterranean streams. However, the state does have the authority to take action to stop wasteful or unreasonable uses of groundwater or to stop groundwater diversions that harm state resources, such as fisheries. If you live in certain areas and pump groundwater, you may be subject to regulation by a local entity, like the county or a groundwater management district, even if you do not need a water right permit.

Surface water rights are more complicated. California recognizes several different types of rights to take and use surface water. Some water rights can only be held by the government. These include pueblo rights, which can only be held by municipalities that were originally Mexican or Spanish pueblos, and federal reserved rights, which can only be held by the federal government.

Individuals can hold riparian water rights, appropriative rights, and prescriptive water rights. If you began using surface water or groundwater from a subterranean stream after 1914, when the State Water Commission Act was enacted, you must apply for and receive approval from the State Water Board before using water (unless you have a riparian right). If the state approves your application, you will receive a water right permit. The permit will allow you to develop your water supply project and to take and use water. After you have developed your project and used water, the State Water Board will determine how much water was beneficially used and will issue you a water right license.” 

Each year, those who are established as high priority rights know that they are likely to receive water, and those with low priority rights know that they may not receive water. Each can then plan accordingly, making economic decisions based on the certainty of their water supply. 

Water rights laws not only provide water users certainty of receiving water in the future, but they also “protect the environment from impacts that occur as a result of water diversions and include conditions to protect other water users and the environment.”  The State Water Board continuously monitors and has authority over the permits it issues. If the board determines that a certain water project is bad for the environment or poorly planned, it can modify the existing  permits and licenses to require more protective conditions. It’s an ongoing process  that works to continually ensure our great golden state will continue to thrive using its natural water resources wisely.  

The Importance of Water Rights

It may be easy to assume that the water rights system doesn’t directly affect you simply because you don’t have a permit or won’t ever have the need to apply for one. But, that couldn’t be further from the truth! 

California’s water rights system works to conserve our most precious resource and protect our environment, and in doing so,  affects almost all elements of our everyday lives. 

“If your food was grown 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 that 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.” - California Water Boards 


In addition to “water rights”, which generally apply to State waters (such as rivers, etc.), there are also private water rights that are held by landowners for their private wells. The amount of water used from the wells are not managed for quantity, but they are subject to monitoring for “quality”. Newly enforced legislation requires that private landowners test the water and submit results of the analysis to the State Water Quality Control Board. This must be done annually and at the owner’s expense. 

As you can tell, water rights are a very complex topic and there are many people, agencies and agendas at play. Our goal is not to persuade you to one side or another, but simply to educate you. Water rights (as well as the broad scope of agriculture matters) are critical issues that deeply impact farmers and ranchers but by extension also have a significant effect on all people.




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