Read Me My Rights

How do you know if you have a water right? Right up front, you know I am not a water rights attorney, and you may end up needing to consult one. There are some good ones. Make sure you go to an attorney who is…a water rights attorney, not an insurance attorney, or a workers comp attorney….house 20100222EAV2232

If you live in a town, city, county water district, or a number of other areas that provide water hookups or delivery by ditch, then you are relying on the provider’s water right. That may be any of the kinds of rights mentioned previously: riparian, rancho, pueblo, appropriative pre-1914, appropriative post-1914, groundwater, adjudicated, prescriptive (proven and adjudicated), or contract.

What if you own a place outside of town, and you have always relied on a well?
Might you have a surface water right? If you are on or near a stream, the answer is a definite “maybe”. Hopefully when you bought the place, the previous owner told you if the place has a decreed (adjudicated) right, or appropriative right, or some other water right.

If you never knew and wanted to find out, then the first thing to do is ask your neighbors. IMPORTANT: maintain good relationships with the peWilliamsons_and_neighborsople who live around you if at all possible. You never know when you need someone’s help, or want to borrow a tractor, or need to peaceably resolve a thorny issue…or get their likely-very-good idea of whether you have a water right, and how much it might be. A neighbor’s opinion is not proof, but someone who has lived in the area for 40, 50, 60 years probably has a good idea.

If your neighbors don’t know (or the relationship isn’t real friendly), the one-stop-shop for most water rights is the State Water Resources Control Board in Sacramento, or 59-98the “Board”. Get your County Assessor Parcel Number (APN), which is in your purchase documents, or probably can be found online by now in every California county. Call the Board at (916) 341-5300, tell the person what you need, and when you are forwarded to the person in the know, give him or her your APN. Write down everything you are told.

Hopefully you get to talk to a knowledgeable person who can tell you “yes” and what type of right. The Board tracks appropriative water rights: all post-1914 rights, and some pre-1914 rights. The Board posts most of the important court adjudications on their web site, so the person can probably tell you if you are in an area with decreed rights.

If the answer you get from the Board doesn’t seem right, you mMan working in ditch CostaDisc2-129 - Editedight call again and get a second opinion. If it still sounds funny, and you have asked your (friendly) neighbor, and checked your property deed for indications, then your best option is probably to consult a water rights attorney.

If you live on a stream or lake, or have a spring on your property, you most likely have a riparian right. Caution here – it’s not guaranteed. Your property has to touch, cross, or include the water body. Then, you have to check your deed on the very small chance the right was transferred to some other parcel. You may live one parcel away from a stream, and there is a very small chance your property has rights reserved, as evidenced by your deed, from when the original owner split off your property. Not likely.

South_Cow_Sht5_Hall_smallIf you live on an adjudicated stream, or at least your property is one of those in a decree on part of a stream, then the court has told you in writing how much water you can take, in what season. Typically these decrees cover the irrigation season, and some also define winter rights. If this is your case, your right is limited to what the court said.

If you ask the Board about your riparian right, the answer you get can vary from, “I don’t think you have any rights” to “You very likely have a right to what you can reasonably and beneficially use.” The person on the phone cannot be certain your property actually touches a water body.

In summary, it’s easy, right? Well, no it’s not. With this information, you have a process you can use to figure it out. Happy hunting!

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Reasonable And Beneficial Use Depends On Who You Are

As far as water rights go, what is “reasonable and beneficial use”? The California Constitution, Article 10, Section 2, says, in part: “…The right to water or to the use or flow of water in or from any natural stream or water course in this State is and shall be limited to such water as shall be reasonably required for the beneficial use to be served, and such right does not and shall not extend to the waste or unreasonable use or unreasonable method of use or unreasonable method of diversion of water….”

That’s pretty clear, isn’t it? Use of water has to make sense and we can’t waste it. The question you are probably asking right now is, who defines the good and bad use of water?

In 1849, The Gold Rush! Starting in the year 1849, prior to California becoming a State in 1850, it was reasonable and beneficial to move a lot of gravel, sometimes whole streams, and sometimes considerable portions of mountains to get gold.

Along with ounces, pounds, and tons of gold found, came a whole lot people than there were before. As the proportion of gold miners to State population decreased, the weight of public opinion changed. Wasn’t it a shame to fill up good rivers with so much gravel that a steamboat could not get through? And weren’t the gnawed-out mountains ugly? Use of monitors was the first, biggest use of water declared to be unreasonable.Irrigation_small

Over time, the mines played out and water went more and more to ranches and farms. This is definitely reasonable and beneficial. California became the bread basket and salad bowl of the nation. With more people, land was developed faster, and more water was used.

And you know what happened next. Fish populations in streams decreased, and more focus was put on non-farm uses of water. As dams went in, the miles of natural streams decreased. The fight over water went from who gets the first the mostest, to also arguing how much should be left in creeks and rivers.

In these photos, one shows the whole flow of a creek being diverted to irrigated pastures. In 1940, that was the best use of that water in this part of the State, except if it cut into someone else’s diversion right. Today, a lot of people think the natural stream iHat Creek_smalls best, with no use by people.

So “reasonable and beneficial” depends on when and where you were, and how scarce the water is. Scarcity includes what’s left over after everyone else has rights.

“Good” use of water changes as society changes. In 1900, 90% of people in the USA lived on farms, and 10% in cities. In 2000, 10% lived on farms, and 90% in cities. California was more like 7% vs.93% – it is no surprise that this wholesale change in who we are also changed what is “reasonable and beneficial.” More on this later….

 

Riparian Rules by Chuck Rich

Riparian Rules by Chuck Rich, State Water Resources Control Board, 2007

GENERAL RULES GOVERNING THE EXISTENCE OF AND
USE OF WATER PURSUANT TO RIPARIAN CLAIMS OF RIGHT

  1. A riparian right exists by reason of ownership of land abutting upon a stream or body of water and affords no basis of right to use water upon nonriparian land.
  2. A parcel of land generally loses its riparian right when severed from the stream channel via a parcel split (i.e., “physical severance”) unless the right is specifically reserved for the severed parcel in the deed of transfer or other conveyance document. However, the California Supreme Court has held that where a physical severance has previously taken place, if the severed tract was receiving water from the creek at the same time the conveyance created the severance, that fact can be used in court to argue that the grantor and grantee did not intend any severance of riparian rights notwithstanding the physical severance, and the riparian right might be preserved as a result – if the court so decides. The riparian right also may be lost when transferred apart from the land by grant, contract, or condemnation. Once lost or severed, the riparian right can NEVER be restored.
  3. Riparian water right holders may only divert a share of the “natural streamflow” of water in the stream. “Natural streamflow” is the flow that occurs in a watercourse due to accretions from rainfall, snowmelt, springs and rising groundwater. To the extent that flow in its natural state reaches or flows through their property, riparian right holders have a proportional right, based on need, to the use of the natural flow.
  4. A riparian right does not allow diversion of water that is foreign to the stream source. Water that is: a) imported from another watershed; b) stored and subsequently released later in time into the stream system from upstream dams; or c) irrigation runoff generated from the application of percolating groundwater applied to upstream lands; is not available for diversion under a riparian claim of right.
  5. Water diverted under claim of riparian right may only be used on the parcel of land that abuts the stream – – unless the severed parcel’s riparian status has been somehow retained (see #2 above), and then only on that portion of the parcel that drains back into that portion of the stream from which the water was originally diverted.
  6. In order to divert water under claim of riparian right, the diverter must use the water on riparian land but need not own the land at the point of diversion. That is, the diversion may be made at a point upstream (or downstream) from the land being served so long as permission is granted to use that point of diversion and intervening land owners between the point of diversion and place of use are not adversely affected by such practice. However, water cannot be diverted upstream or downstream under a riparian claim of right if this water would not have reached the diverter’s land in the “natural” state of affairs. (In other words, the land is only riparian to the stream when the stream, in the natural state, would actually reach or touch the parcel in question.)
  7. Riparian rights are not lost by nonuse of the water.
  8. “Seasonal storage” of water cannot be accomplished under a riparian claim of right. “Seasonal storage” is generally defined as the collection of water during a period of excess flow for use during a period of deficient flow. However, water may be retained for strictly “regulatory” purposes. “Regulatory storage” of water means the direct diversion of water to a tank or reservoir in order that the water may be put to use shortly thereafter at a rate larger than the rate at which it could have been diverted continuously from its source. Regulatory ponds should generally be drained at the end of the season of use (e.g., irrigation season).
  9. If there is insufficient water for the reasonable, beneficial use requirements of all riparian owners, they must share the available supply. Apportionment is governed by various factors, including each owner’s reasonable requirements and uses. In the absence of mutual agreement, recourse to a determination in the Superior Court may be necessary.
  10. The riparian diverter is subject to the doctrine of reasonable use, which limits the use of water to that quantity reasonably required for beneficial purposes. The method of diversion and conveyance must also be reasonable and non-wasteful.
  11. A diverter who possesses a valid riparian claim of right does NOT need to obtain a permit from the State Water Resources Control Board for the act of diverting water. However, any alteration made to a natural channel in order to divert the water will probably require acquisition of a “streambed alteration agreement” from the Department of Fish and Game and may require a Section 404 Permit from the Army Corps of Engineers or a waste discharge requirement from the appropriate Regional Water Quality Control Board. Compliance is also required with any other local, state, or federal requirements regarding construction and operation of the diversion facilities.
  12. Water Code section 5100, et seq. requires that a “Statement of Water Diversion and Use” be filed with the Division for any diversion under riparian right if no other entity reports this use. As of 2007, there is no charge to file this document and forms are available upon request from the Division of Water Rights.

The Smartest Water Expert In California

I think that the smartest water expert in California is Chuck Rich. He used to head up the Complaints Unit at the State Water Resources Control Board. Before I get jumped on because one of 200 other people is someone else’s top water expert, let me explain why.

Chuck is not an attorney but he worked with many hundreds of them, and thousands of diverters and water agencies over his career. He had to – complaints came from every part of the State from small diverters up to the largest water agencies. Chuck is eloquent and effective in explaining the application of water law and likely outcomes of arguments over water rights. He can explain water rights to anyone, at their level of understanding. That ability to apply and clearly explain water rights is what moves Chuck to the “smartest” category in my estimation.

For an example, see “Riparian Rules” in the next post. This is the shortest, most complete, and effective explanation I have ever seen. Sure there is more to riparian rights, but this is the meat of it.  (Any mistakes in the text or how it is displayed are mine, not Chuck’s.)

Whenever I am asked, “Yeah but, where is it written how much my riparian right is??”, I refer them to our state Constitution, Article 10, Section 2. Note the phrases “riparian rights” and “reasonable and beneficial use”:

CALIFORNIA CONSTITUTION
ARTICLE 10 WATER

SEC. 2. It is hereby declared that because of the conditions prevailing in this State the general welfare requires that the water resources of the State be put to beneficial use to the fullest extent of which they are capable, and that the waste or unreasonable use or unreasonable method of use of water be prevented, and that the conservation of such waters is to be exercised with a view to the reasonable and beneficial use thereof in the interest of the people and for the public welfare. The right to water or to the use or flow of water in or from any natural stream or water course in this State is and shall be limited to such water as shall be reasonably required for the beneficial use to be served, and such right does not and shall not extend to the waste or unreasonable use or unreasonable method of use or unreasonable method of diversion of water. Riparian rights in a stream or water course attach to, but to no more than so much of the flow thereof as may be required or used consistently with this section, for the purposes for which such lands are, or may be made adaptable, in view of such reasonable and beneficial uses; provided, however, that nothing herein contained shall be construed as depriving any riparian owner of the reasonable use of water of the stream to which the owner’s land is riparian under reasonable methods of diversion and use, or as depriving any appropriator of water to which the appropriator is lawfully entitled. This section shall be self-executing, and the Legislature may also enact laws in the furtherance of the policy in this section contained.

Water Rights – Why Do They Exist? Which Kinds Are There?

Why is there such a thing as water rights? Water is something everyone needs. Except maybe W.C. Fields; he tried to stick to alcohol and when offered water said, “Can’t stand the stuff.” Anyway, water is a shared resource, and in some places there isn’t enough for what people need (or at least want).

California is mostly desert where people live and where food is grown. Water is scarce when it comes to all desired uses. Even in a wet year, surface water flows decrease through the summer and fall.

If you did not have enough water, how would you get it? Use more from the city, buy it from the water district, drill a well, truck it in, or dig a ditch from a creek or river. No matter how you get it, in California it got to you under some kind of right.

What kind of surface water rights are there? The simple list is, and I am sure this leaves out a few:

  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.
  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. Post-1914, issued by the State Water Resources Control 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.

That’s useful to know even in summary form. Of course there are books, court cases, both in the thousands, and the California Water Code, and interstate compacts that more particularly define what these are.

Which are better or “senior” rights? That’s for later posts.

Water Rights And Engineers

What is “water rights engineering”? It is not litigating as an attorney, since I am not a lawyer. It could include design and construction of dams, diversion works, pipelines, pumps, and other water-related work.

Concerning water rights, land ownership may change after a water right is defined. Parcels are split so children can each have a part of the original ranch, or because the owner needs income, and a panoply of other reasons. What happens to the original water right?

Well, it depends. In many court adjudications, or decrees, the irrigation water right gets split up by how much of the original place of use is in each smaller parcel. Decrees may also have rights for other uses like domestic (household) use, stock water, storage in a pond or lake, instream fisheries, frost protection, industry, fire protection, and from years past, filling the water tanks in a train steam engine.

What kinds of water rights are there and where do they come from? More on that later.

California Water Right Holders Now Required To Have Measuring Devices

Water laws are changing at lightning speed because California is in a historic drought. Groundwater law was passed requiring local agencies to be formed to manage groundwater. In 2012, I thought that would take 20 years to happen. The drought accelerated it to 2 years.

Surface water laws were passed in 2009, greatly increasing penalties for not reporting diversions, for misreporting, for overdiverting – in short, for evading, lying, and stealing. Suddenly tens of thousands of diverters who had been ignoring the State Water Resources Control Board started to worry. How do I report, am I in hot water if the Board sends me a letter, how do I figure out what my water right is?

The California Water Code Section 5100-5107 has the new, more restrictive part of the Water Code.

For example CWC 5103 (e) (B) says:

” (i) On and after July 1, 2016, the measurement of a diversion of 10 acre-feet or more per year shall comply with regulations adopted by the board pursuant to Article 3 (commencing with Section 1840) of Chapter 12 of Part 2. “

That doesn’t sound too bad. But what does CWC 1840 say?

” 1840 (a) (1) Except as provided in subdivision (b), a person who, on or after January 1, 2016, diverts 10 acre-feet of water per year or more under a permit or license shall install and maintain a device or employ a method capable of measuring the rate of direct diversion, rate of collection to storage, and rate of withdrawal or release from storage. The measurements shall be made using the best available technologies and best professional practices, as defined in Section 5100, using a device or methods satisfactory to the board, as follows:
(A) A device shall be capable of continuous monitoring of the rate and quantity of water diverted and shall be properly maintained. The permittee or licensee shall provide the board with evidence that the device has been installed with the first report submitted after installation of the device. The permittee or licensee shall provide the board with evidence demonstrating that the device is functioning properly as part of the reports submitted at five-year intervals after the report documenting installation of the device, or upon request of the board.
(B) In developing regulations pursuant to Section 1841, the board shall consider devices and methods that provide accurate measurement of the total amount diverted and the rate of diversion. The board shall consider devices and methods that provide accurate measurements within an acceptable range of error, including the following:
(i) Electricity records dedicated to a pump and recent pump test.
(ii) Staff gage calibrated with an acceptable streamflow rating curve.
(iii) Staff gage calibrated for a flume or weir.
(iv) Staff gage calibrated with an acceptable storage capacity curve.
(v) Pressure transducer and acceptable storage capacity curve.
(2) The permittee or licensee shall maintain a record of all diversion monitoring that includes the date, time, and diversion rate at time intervals of one hour or less, and the total amount of water diverted. These records shall be included with reports submitted under the permit or license, as required under subdivision (c), or upon request of the board.
(b) (1) The board may modify the requirements of subdivision (a) upon finding either of the following:
(A) That strict compliance is infeasible, is unreasonably expensive, would unreasonably affect public trust uses, or would result in the waste or unreasonable use of water.
(B) That the need for monitoring and reporting is adequately addressed by other conditions of the permit or license.
(2) The board may increase the 10-acre-foot reporting threshold of subdivision (a) in a watershed or subwatershed, after considering the diversion reporting threshold in relation to quantity of water within the watershed or subwatershed. The board may increase the 10-acre-foot reporting threshold to 25 acre-feet or above if it finds that the benefits of the additional information within the watershed or subwatershed are substantially outweighed by the cost of installing measuring devices or employing methods for measurement for diversions at the 10-acre-foot threshold.
(c) At least annually, a person who diverts water under a registration, permit, or license shall report to the board the following information:
(1) The quantity of water diverted by month.
(2) The maximum rate of diversion by months in the preceding calendar year.
(3) The information required by subdivision (a), if applicable.
(4) The amount of water used, if any, for cannabis cultivation.
(d) Compliance with the applicable requirements of this section is a condition of every registration, permit, or license.
(Amended by Stats. 2016, Ch. 32, Sec. 98. Effective June 27, 2016.) “

Now THAT has a punch. There are exceptions in following paragraphs, but the Board now wants “continuous monitoring”, meaning one of the older, mechanical Stevens Recorders and the like, or newer, electronic pressure transducers. Now we are talking $500 and up just for recording data, in addition to a measurement weir, flume, or orifice.

And the diverter has to provide “evidence”. How is that done? Is a photo good enough? A video? A drawing? A statement by the local ditch tender, the Resource Conservation District, a technician, or an engineer?

Of course, the Board has higher priorities with larger diversions, and streams with anadromous (chinook and steelhead) fisheries. Still, it is an open question about when the Board will get to your or my diversion.

Complaints from neighbors with a grudge tend to elevate problems that the Board considers. But, water is nothing to argue over, is it? Or have grudges?

More on this later. Good night to all.