Observations on a Modern Water Rights System in the Sacramento Valley

Tuesday, Mar 21st, 2023

By David Guy


With the discussions surrounding the modernization of our water system in California for both wetter and drier years, including the water rights system, we offer the following observations from the Sacramento Valley to help bring some focus to the conversations:

  • California’s water rights system is foundational to our state’s water management system for cities and rural communities, farms, fish and wildlife, hydropower and recreation—thus our economy and environment are dependent upon the orderly exercise of the water rights system and we are all invested in its success.
  • Californians have built an amazing and highly managed water system. State, federal and local water agencies continue to evolve as we face increasing recurrence of droughts, floods and fires. California’s current population of 40 million will grow to 50 million by 2050. In California, we have the most abundant agricultural bounty in the world, we are graced with a stunning landscape and environment, we are the 5th largest economy in the world, and people pursue endless recreational opportunities in every part of the state. We cannot take any of this for granted! Water rights and supplies are essential for all these special features that define California and the continued health of our communities, tribes, farms, fish, wildlife, and environmental resources are all dependent on a predictable, consistent, and well-managed water rights system.
  • California’s existing water rights structure and system are working in the Sacramento Valley to serve water for multiple benefits, including cities and rural communities, farms and ranches, fish and wildlife, recreation, and hydropower. Tribes in the Sacramento Valley depend upon the exercise of water rights for their communities, farms, and food processing and many disadvantaged communities depend upon water rights and the delivery of affordable and high-quality water supplies. The water rights system also allows water to spread out and slow down on the landscape, which is dependent upon a modern water system and essential to a functional Sacramento Valley where water serves multiple benefits.
  • We support the implementation of the water rights priority system. In fact, the Sacramento Valley has worked well with the State Water Board since 2014 to help implement this process in an orderly and transparent manner. This has led to significant curtailments of water rights, where water right holders have worked with the State Water Board to curtail their water use at the appropriate time, they have planned accordingly to either find alternative supplies or they have ceased using water, making the system work in dry years. This has not happened without pain and both economic and environmental consequences from the lack of available water. To be clear, the implementation of the water rights process is not an academic exercise–it has led to curtailments of water rights in many parts of the Sacramento Valley, which has affected real people and real fish and wildlife.
  • The Sacramento Valley is sourcing our sustainable future through responsible management of the essential resource that millions of birds, hundreds of thousands of fish, thousands of farms and millions of people all rely on-water.

Is there a need for improvements and fixes to address loopholes and gaps in the statutory and regulatory structure?  Yes, we agree.  But, a major overhaul of the water rights system is unnecessary and threaten to create widespread instability and disruption to our economy, environment, the water management landscape, and our way of life. The introduction of broad and sweeping water rights legislation poses great concerns for water supply reliability and creates open-ended and ongoing risks for communities, farms, tribes, and others who are reliant–and that have developed their urban, agricultural, and environmental models based upon–a consistent and predictable water rights statutory and regulatory structure.

Improving Information and Data are Foundational to Implementing the Water Rights Priority System

There is a significant need for the State to improve information and data collection efforts to support the existing water rights administration.  Modernizing the water rights information system should be a foundational element to strengthening and supporting the existing water rights system in California.  Enhanced water rights data and technologies are integral to the modernization of our water management system in California. This includes a combination of measurement (including new and reactivated stream gages, enhanced snow surveys and forecasts) with data and technology (such as digitizing records, enabling forecast-informed reservoir operations, and improving the water right data management system) to improve the water unavailability methodology that provides the basis for implementing the water rights priority system and to verify water rights.

We strongly support information management improvement and data collection efforts for a modern water system, including:

  • The State Water Board’s budget change proposal to allocate $31.5 million in the State Budget process for continuation of the water rights modernization effort.
  • AB 30 (Ward), to improve predictive models, novel forecasting methods, and tailored decision support systems to improve predictions of atmospheric rivers and their impacts on water supply, flooding, post-wildfire debris flows, and environmental conditions.
  • SB 361 (Dodd), to reactivate, upgrade, and install new stream gages to ensure accurate and comprehensive data collection.

We have supported the $82M dedicated by the Administration and Legislature over the past several years to help the State Water Board improve water rights administration in a more systematic and effective way. This includes $30 million in 2021-22 to begin rebuilding the state’s water rights data management system and $52 million in 2022-23 to establish pilot projects to collect real-time diversion data and develop analytical tools to implement the water rights priority system in additional watersheds.

We Need Aggressive Enforcement of the Water Rights System

We strongly support a robust water enforcement process for the State Water Board. Water suppliers have a direct and important interest to ensure the enforcement of water rights, particularly during dry years. We have thus formally urged the State Water Board for more than a decade to pursue more aggressive enforcement of the water rights system as the water right holders, our communities, farms and the environment depend upon this process.

If there are gaps and loopholes in the existing water rights statutory structure and enforcement system, then legislation should be narrowly-tailored to address very specific gaps in the law; examples include:

  • Providing sufficient and specific statutory authority for the State Water Board to act quickly to address illegal diversions or violations of curtailment orders
  • Providing appropriate punitive authority through the establishment of a meaningful monetary fine structure to the State Water Board to enforce illegal diversions or violations of curtailment orders

We have also encouraged water users to assist the State Water Board with enforcement and appreciate the State Water Board developing its complaint process (Water Rights Enforcement Complaints) that is available on its website here. This process is very important for several reasons. First, it provides a public process to raise legitimate complaints for actions that affect senior water rights. Second, it allows the State Water Board more flexibility in administering the curtailment process by relying on senior water right holders to raise issues rather than anticipating every water right that could possibly be affected by water use in the system. We encourage the State Water Board to rely upon this program and more visibly promote the website and the opportunities to file a complaint. The State Water Board should also consider more traditional methods (such as newspapers) to promote this process for complaints in more remote areas of the state.

The Legislature should recognize that water rights enforcement is hard work. Providing tools necessary for the State Water Board to carry out this work is critical and is the best investment in a well-functioning water rights system. Words on paper may be helpful, but this is no substitute for the hard work, diligence, and time required by the State Water Board staff to ensure a meaningful enforcement process.

We have been encouraged that several of the statements surrounding new legislation have focused on a desire to improve the enforcement of water rights. Unfortunately, the bills that have been introduced to date overreach and go well beyond the improvements to enforcement described in the statements.

Water Transfers Provide a Flexible Way to Implement the Water Rights System for All of California

Water transfers work well in California, are proven, and highlight how the water rights system can work, even in the driest of years. Water in the Sacramento Valley has been transferred to disadvantaged communities, wildlife refuges, cities throughout California, instream flows for fisheries, and farms. Water transfers work well to address California’s supply and demand in any given year within the water rights system. The State of California’s Water Resilience Portfolio directs easing the movement of water across the state by simplifying water transfers and reducing the approval time for transfers. Water transfers are a relatively small but critical source of water in many years for areas that need water, including public health and safety needs, disadvantaged communities and neighbors without water. (See Strategy 4.2, Water Resilience Portfolio 21). Water transfers are also integral to the implementation of Healthy Rivers California, the Voluntary Agreement process.

In the Sacramento Valley, we appreciate the Governor’s Water Supply Strategy, the recent Executive Orders, and we fully support and will continue to work hard to modernize our water infrastructure and improve the water rights system to support 21st century water management. This ongoing effort will benefit from the expertise of our water resources managers and their consultants, partnering with state and federal agencies and conservation partners, to serve and steward water resources for multiple benefits, including cities and rural communities, farms, fish, wildlife, recreation and hydropower. Working together, we can modernize our water system and improve the administration of the water rights priority system as its legal and operational foundation with improved data, efficiency, and transparency.

We have developed a white paperModernizing California’s Water Management System, expressing our ideas, which we would welcome thoughts and other ideas at info@norcalwater.org.

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