What Are The Surface Water Rights When Ag Land Subdivides?

Update: I wrote this post for property owners NOT in a municipality, water company, water district, irrigation district, community services district, or other organization that has its own bylaws regarding the rights to and distribution of water.  For property that gets its water this way, water rights depend on how the bylaws allow redistribution, sale, temporary reassignment, or other transfer.  There may even be an original court decree that specified rights to individual owners, but the agency passed bylaws later that assigned water rights to the agency instead.  With the exception above considered, here is the original post:

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When a farm or ranch subdivides, what happens to the surface water rights?  We already got part of the answer from the State Water Resources Control Board, in Post # 82:

A018405_ewrims_lic_pg1_purpose_amtPermits And Licenses – What Are The Water Rights When Land Is Subdivided?  In summary, it is up to the water right holders to notify the Water Board that the land has subdivided and go from there.

The answer is well defined when a Superior Court Decree is under State of
California Watermaster Service:  Water Rights Reapportionment Method.  This document describes what is done under nearly all decrees with defined areas for water New_Pine_Dec1stpg_1925 - Editedrights, whether or not under state service…unless some other method is specified.  The State subdivides water rights whether or not new owners of subdivided parcels notify the Department of Water Resources; the requirement falls on the State instead of the water right holders.  Owners of land are notified at least once a year, since a charge for watermaster service is included on their tax bill.

What ACTUALLY happens with the water, when a subdivision is built on what used to be a farm or ranch?  Does water always go with water rights?

New Subdivision On Ranch With Water Rights - Photo Credit: Pixabay
New Subdivision On Ranch With Water Rights – Photo Credit: Pixabay

How do the owners of smaller parcels go about getting their water right?  In some cases, new owners have invested in pipelines to keep using the water right on the smaller parcels.  When the original owner subdivided the land, he or she made it clear that water rights were split up, or may have paid an attorney or engineer to split them up in advance.  These owners are well aware of what their rights are.  In other places, some new owners use water, others don’t, which is fine as long as a new owner doesn’t complain loudly.

Ex_2_Williamson_Parcel_Outline_on_DecreeMap_reducedIn still other locations, none of the new homeowners wanted to use the water, either because there was a built-in municipal supply of pure or treated water, or because one or more private or community wells were drilled.  The water right probably was not advertised as being available when the homes were built, and once the new owners were in, it became a lot more expensive to arrange pipelines across several neighbors’ properties to get a share of the surface water right.

What happens when nobody uses the water, or less water is used?  The answer is, of course, “It depends.”  If it is a decreed right, then the right stays with the

Subdivision On Old Farm - Photo Credit: Pixabay
Subdivision On Old Farm – Photo Credit: Pixabay

land unless the decree specifies another method.  It would take another court order to change the rights from what was originally decreed.  If it is a riparian right, then unless the owner was very careful to reserve riparian rights when subdividing the ranch, the only remaining rights are with those new parcels still adjacent to the stream.  Owners rarely think about reserving riparian rights in these cases, and so the riparian right is lost.  That is, unless:

  • The right was filed with the Water Board, either as a pre-1914 water right or a post-1914 application and the owner was subsequently issued a permit or license
  • …and the water continued to be used, and that use documented by the owner or with the Water Board
  • …and the water is used reasonably and beneficially, either for the original purpose of use, or for one of the many other appropriate purposes of use the Water Board considers reasonable and beneficial
  • …or, the right is part of a Superior Court adjudication, in which case the right is “eternal” because, for all the adjudications I have seen, there is no provision for expiration of rights.  Another court case is needed to change rights defined in the original decree.

I know this is not a neat, tidy explanation of what happens to water rights when a farm or ranch is subdivided.  Not surprisingly, water rights are well-understood by maybe 1% of California’s population.  No offense intended – only a few percent of the population lives on farms and ranches, and a fair number of those are in water or irrigation districts where the board and manager deal with the actual water rights.

In summary, this is an accurate description of what happens, as opposed to theoretical cases.  Water right subdivisions have a legal side, and a practical/applied side.  Sometimes the legal water right persists whether or not the water is used, as with riparian and court-decreed water rights.  Other times the reasonable, beneficial, and mostly continuous use of the water is what protects the existence of that right, for appropriative pre-1914 or post-1914 water rights.  Even if a pre- or post-1914 water right is not used for some years, when the owner does start using the water, if nobody complains, there is nothing to trigger action by the Water Board, or a lawsuit by neighbors.  After a few years of use, it will be hard for a complaining party to make the case for loss of the right because of the previous gap in time.

By the way, except where courts have decreed what the groundwater rights are, they are most like surface water riparian rights.  Regardless of the size of subdivided parcels, all of them still overlie groundwater and have a right to use it.  Control of their use is increasing with the  Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, and priorities (effective or actual) will be established, but that is a discussion for some later post.

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Is John Stealing Water?? Orifices And Sum Of The Boxes

This is updated from a previous post, which was an example for a stream with adjudicated water rights.  However, it also works for any stream where there are water rights with legally defined diversion quantities, if all the diverters have headgates in good condition and/or measurement devices such as weirs, flumes, and pipe meters.

Is John Stealing Water??  John Casey has a cattle ranch near Adin, where he grows pasture and hay to raise about 70 Angus steers.  His ranch is 240 acres with lower irrigated land and forest on the higher part.  He has an a licensed water right of 2.00 cubic feet per second (cfs) from Preacher Creek, to irrigate 80 acres, from April 1 to November 1.

John’s downstream neighbors claim he steals water.  He says he can show that he takes only 2 cfs, or less when the flow drops down in the summer.  Can he prove it?John_Headgate_edit

As we can see, he has a square headgate at the head of his ditch.  It is 2.0′ wide, and can open up to 1.5′ high.  Right now, John says he is diverting 1.05 cfs.  His evidence is that his gate is open 0.15′, the water is 0.57′ deep on the upstream side, and the water is 0.20′ deep on the downstream side.  Is that enough to check what he says?

The box in which the gate sits has smooth walls, and the gate closes flush with the bottom when John is not diverting.  The water continues in a straight path from upstream to downstream.  That means the weir has “suppressed” sides.

This is in contrast with, for example, a hole cut in the middle of a 2″ x 12″ weir board.  The water on the sides has to make the turn to go straight through, so the hole in the board is an example of a “contracted” orifice.

Let’s look at the tables for orifices in the back of the Water Measurement Manual.  Table A9-3 is for submerged, suppressed weirs.WMM_Table_A9-3_suppressed

We can’t see the downstream side of the weir, but the water is above the bottom of the edge of the gate, so it is submerged rather than free-flowing.

This table has flows calculated for a minimum area of 2.0 square feet (sq. ft.).  However, the area of the opening at John’s headgate is 2.0′ wide x 0.15′ high, or 0.30 sq. ft.  Fortunately, the equation, Q=0.70A(2g Δh)^0.5, is listed right at the top of the table.  We can calculate the flow using that.  Q is the flow in cfs, A is the area of the orifice hole, g = the acceleration due to gravity, or 32.2 ft/second^2 (feet per second squared), and Δh is the difference between the upstream and downstream water depth.

So the flow Q = 0.70 x (2.0′ x 0.30′) x (2 x 32.2 x 0.37′)^0.5 = 1.03 cfs.  So far so good – John is taking 52%, or just over half of his right when 100 percent of flows are available.  But, how much flow is actually available right now?

Let’s use the “sum of the boxes” method.  Instead of measuring the amount of water in Preacher Creek at the top, before any diversions, and then estimating how much flow is being lost to evaporation, transpiration, and infiltration, and then estimating how much flow is subsurface above John Casey’s ranch and “pops up” out of the ground below, we’ll look at what each diversion amount is, plus the amount still in the creek after the last diversion.  This is very useful because none of the instream losses have to be estimated – we just add the diversions and flow still in the creek, and that amount IS the available supply.

Water Board Permits and Licenses are usually not interrelated – they specify water rights without considering the other water rights on the stream.  This is different from adjudicated streams, whether done by the Water Board or the Department of Water Resources.  Some Superior Court judges in past decades were pretty smart and actually ordered that available flows be calculated by the sum of the boxes:

Susan_1_of_2_DecreeParaAvailWaterEqualsDiversionsSusan_2_of_2_DecreeParaAvailWaterEqualsDiversionsThe paragraph above, from the Susan River Decree, defines available water supply as what is being diverted, plus the flow passing the last diversion.

There are 4 diversions on Preacher Creek, and here are the amounts being diverted:

  • Diversion 1 (John Casey) 1.03 cfs  of a 1.60 cfs water right, 52% of his total right
  • Diversion 2 (Amy Hoss) 1.67 cfs  of a 3.80 cfs water right, 44% of her total right
  • Diversion 3 (Mark and Cindy Sample) 0.55 cfs  of a 0.88 cfs water right, 62% of their total right
  • Diversion 4 (Quint and Marcie Minks) 1.32 cfs  of a 2.50 cfs water right, 53% of his total right
  • Flow still in the creek past the Minks Diverison – Quint estimates about 0.7 cfs

The total diversion-plus-bypass flow is about 5.3 cfs.  The total rights on the creek are 9.48 cfs.  Therefore, the total available flow = 5.3 / 9.48 = 56%.

So, John is right, he is not stealing water!  He is taking 52% of his water right, when he could be taking 56% according to the “sum of the boxes” method.  Not only that, but Amy could take more, the Samples should reduce their diversion, and the Minks’s could take a tad more.  Well, that’s theoretical – Quint and Marcie Minks probably cannot seal up their dam completely, so there may be a little bit less flow actually available for diversion.

File Logger And Meter Data In 2019, With Annual Reports

Diverters and reservoir owners have been wondering, when is water level logger or meter data supposed to be filed with the Water Board?  I checked with Jeff Yeazell, our public contact at the Water Board.  Folks will be able to file data with their annual reports in 2019, so you’ll do it while you are already in the Report Management System to file your Reports of Licensee (due April 1) or Supplemental Statements (due July 1).  The new forms will likely be available in January of 2019.

Jeff is a great guy, knowledgeable, very responsive, and easy to talk with, so you can be reassured you’ll get a response and most likely an answer if you contact him.  His email is Jeffrey.Yeazell@waterboards.ca.gov and you can call him at (916) 341-5322.

https://public.waterboards.ca.gov/WRInfo/ :

Data Loggers – Convenient…But Data Will Be Lost

The Water Board requires diversions and storage over 10 acre-feet per year to be recorded, per SB 88, other state laws, the California Water Code, and agency regulations.  Data must be recorded monthly, weekly, daily, or hourly, depending on the size of the diversion or reservoir:

But we don’t live in a perfect world.  Things will go wrong.  Whether you record data by hand in a notebook, or a data collector records data electronically, data will get lost.  Why not just use a notebook or phone camera?  That works when the data collection interval is monthly, and might work for weekly.

However, if diversions are over 100 AF or storage is over 200 AF per year, data must be collected daily, and diversion or storage of 1,000 AF per year or more requires hourly data collection.  That daily or hourly interval makes electronic data collectors of some kind a requirement to have the data and avoid those fines of possibly $500/day.

 

 

We’re all busy, so we have to make time to spend half a day or more downloading loggers 2 or 3 times each year.  The leaves the possibility of data loss between the times data is downloaded.  Why not download data once a month, or weekly?  That’s not doable for ranchers and farmers who are already spending long days just to try and make a profit.

At some point, data will be lost.  You could just use the last measured value for all the intervals that were lost, but in reality storage volumes change based on rainfall, evaporation, stock and wildlife use, and releases.  Diversions change based on available flows in the stream and changes in irrigation, stockwater, or other uses at the place of use.  Sometimes diversions are maxed out for a day or two for filling a ditch or flooding up, and other times they are shut off for haying or maintenance.

How will you tell the Water Board that data is lost, even though you did your level best to do everything right?  Perhaps data was downloaded in February, June, and October…but the fields for February 15 through June 10 are blank.

As always, if you are behind the 8-Ball, communicate early and often.  Jeff Yeazell is the public contact outside of the Delta, and Jeff is scrupulous about replying and hanging on to emails.  If you’re really worried, include someone else in an email.  Notice I said “email” and not “phone”.  Phone calls are a lot more work on the receiving end, and information can get lost more easily.

Of course, also take extraordinary steps to recover the data.  Maybe an expert can try a few things to get the data off the unit.  You might have to send it to the manufacturer and see if they can download it.

Be diligent, check setups twice and three times, save downloaded data in 2 places immediately after downloading, download as often as you can, and otherwise be diligent and careful.  In the end, though, data will be lost, but don’t panic.  Communicate early, often, completely, and repetitively.  Keep estimates or spot-check notes throughout the year, and use those to fill in gaps if you have to.

California Water Rights Are Complicated! Can’t They Be Easier?

California water rights are complicated, which you already know if you have spent an hour trying to figure them out.  From the November 2015 post Water Rights – Why Do They Exist? Which Kinds Are There?, here is the summary list of types:

  1. Riparian – a parcel that touches a stream, spring or lake may use a ” reasonable and beneficial” amount, quantity and rate undefined, per the California Constitution, Article X, Section 2
  2. Rancho rights granted by the government of Spain or Mexico, prior to Statehood in 1850
  3. Pueblo rights, the one belonging to Los Angeles being famous
  4. Appropriative in 1913 and prior, aka “pre-1914”, for parcels not touching a body of water, which started with gold mining and is now mostly for agriculture
  5. Appropriative post-1914, issued by the State Water Resources Control Board (Water Board)
  6. Adjudicated, or decreed, from Federal District or State Superior Court
  7. Groundwater from a well, similar to surface water riparian but for the overlying land
  8. Prescriptive, which isn’t a definite right until decreed by a court
  9. Contracts, which are not rights but rely on some already-existing right
Photo Credit: morguefile.com

From conversations with a reliable source, I found out that the Water Board made two runs at standardizing water rights in past decades.  Water right holders would have had 20 years to prove their rights, then all of them would have been rolled into one class or type of water right.  There would still be dates of first use, priorities, and so on, but the Water Board would have authority over all of the rights.

So what happened?  It didn’t work.  The leaders of a large water organization contacted their legislators and said, “Hey, this standardization process might affect our rights.  We don’t want that, so please yank the Water Board’s funding for this effort.”  And that was that, and perhaps that was best for most water right holders in the state.

Besides that, the Water Board has tried a few times to cancel riparian water rights, as part of adjudications of all water rights in a watershed.  The resulting lawsuits undid the Water Board’s actions, and riparian water rights are still the law today.

Bluetooth Hobo Logger Saves Money and Time

Onset has a neat Bluetooth Hobo water level logger.  The MX-2001, with the cap removed, hooks up to the MX-2001-TOP with a cable, and once installed, is

downloaded with the free Hobomobile smartphone app.  The app does everything you’d normally need a data shuttle and cable for – starting, setup, configuration, downloading, and stopping the logger.

 

 

The top unit with the Bluetooth radio has to be out of the water, so of course the top of the stilling well holding the unit has to be 1.0 feet or higher up out of the water.  If the stilling well is galvanized iron pipe, you’ll need to get within a few feet to download it.  If you are using PVC you might get a connection at 100 feet.

Will two units close to each other interfere?  Nope, the app finds both and lets the user choose which unit to work with.  As with any water level logger installation, keep a logbook or spreadsheet with the Serial Numbers for each location so you aren’t confused later.

What about barometric pressure?  The TOP unit records barometric pressure, so you don’t need a second unit for atmospheric pressure, nor do you have to know the elevation difference between two separated units.  The unit subtracts atmospheric from absolute pressure, then gives you all 3 values when you download:  absolute, atmospheric, water only.  That makes data processing much easier.

In California, you should be able to get one of these shipped to you for $750.  Compare that to the regular Hobos, which need one in the air, one in the water, and a data shuttle and cable.  It would put you back almost $1,000 to get the separate pieces shipped to you.  If you have two or more locations to log, then the old style is less expensive as far as parts go.  Still, the Bluetooth version is likely more cost effective when you consider the minutes saved each time the Bluetooth unit is downloaded, compared to unlocking or unscrewing the cap, getting the water unit out, downloading it, and replacing the cap or lock.

Upcoming AB 589 Self-Certification Courses, end of June through August!

I promised to post more information on AB 589 Self-Certification course dates…and then I did not find out where the web page with the list of dates is.    Thanks to Jenn Koch from the U.C.’s Woodland office, we have some course dates.  By the way, I took the course, and it is very well done by Dr. Khaled Bali, Larry Forero and Allan Fulton from the UC Cooperative Extension:

  1. June 29 (AM Training) UCCE- Humboldt County-(Eureka)

  2. June 29 (PM Training) UCCE- Trinity County-(Hayfork)

  3. July 9    UCCE- Modoc County (Cedarville)

  4. July 10  UCCE- Siskiyou County (Yreka)

  5. July 11  UCCE- Yolo County (Davis) – NOTE, location on AB 589 web page is incorrect

  6. August 29 UCCE- Plumas/Sierra Counties (Taylorsville)

  7. August 30 UCCE- Glenn County (Elk Creek)