Riparian Rules by Chuck Rich

An oldie but still the best summary of riparian rights that can fit on both sides of an 8-1/2″ x 11″ sheet of paper:

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.
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Can a water right be lost?

This is a question that comes up all over California, every day.  It usually comes in one Headgate on streamof two ways:

  1. I’m about to buy some land.  Will I have a water right if the previous owner did not use it for X years ?
  2. My neighbor hasn’t used his right in X years.  He lost it, so I can use it, right?

The short answer is yes, an appropriative, post-1914 water right can be lost.  Court-decreed water rights, riparian rights, and pre-1914 cannot be lost – usually.  We’ll discuss those cases later in the post.  What most people are thinking of is the provision from WATER CODE SECTION 1240-1244:

1241.  If the person entitled to the use of water fails to use beneficially all or any part of the water claimed by him or her, for which a right of use has vested, for the purpose for which it was appropriated or adjudicated, for a period of five years, that unused water may revert to the public and shall, if reverted, be regarded as unappropriated public water. That reversion shall occur upon a finding by the board following notice to the permittee, licensee, or person holding a livestock stockpond certificate or small domestic use, small irrigation use, or livestock stockpond use registration under this part and a public hearing if requested by the permittee, licensee, certificate holder, or registration holder.

Diversion box to field“Board” means the  State Water Resources Control Board.  The emphasis on “may” and “if” is mine, and it is important.  Loss of a water right under this provision is not automatic.  It takes a complaint by someone to get it started, just as it takes a complaint for someone to get a water rights case heard by the judge of a Superior or Federal Court.

Then, if the water right holder protests that yes, he or she has diverted water during the last 5 years, it’s up to the complainant or the Board to prove that water was not diverted.  This might be from yearly photos of the land in question (rare), testimony by several neighbors;, or a lack of records from the water right holder, showing that there was indeed a crop, pasture with cattle, hay, or some other beneficial use; or some other evidence.

Let’s consider riparian rights and then put that discussion aside.  A riparian water right cannot be lost for non-use, since it is established by the Constitution of the State of California.  Riparian rights are not being considered here, and they are discussed in greater detail in the post Riparian Rules by Chuck Rich.

How does someone know that their water right may be on the chopping block?  They will have already had phone calls and probably visits from Board staff.  There should be no surprise at this point.  Then, the Board will send a letter that starts something like this:

Notice_proposed_revocation

There is an opportunity to dispute the assertions in the letter, and a water right holder can request a hearing (or hearings) before the Board.  If the alleged non-use is not a watertight case, the process can take a year or longer.

What if the water is a pre-1914 water right?  Can it be lost?  The answer used to be a fairly solid “no”, but the Board’s authority has increased in recent years.  It is harder to lose a pre-1914 right but the best defense is having used it at least once in the past five years, and having some proof it was used.

Diversion box from diversion

What if the water right is part of a  State Superior Court  or  Federal District Court  decree* or adjudication?  Interestingly, very few decrees have ANY provision for expiration of water rights.  In addition, courts usually maintain jurisdiction of these cases, so that any following petitions or lawsuits over decreed water rights must go back to court.  In essence, this makes decreed rights “eternal” or permanent, unless the rights are changed in a subsequent lawsuit.  *Statutory adjudications where the Board issued an Order of Determination, and then took it to the Superior Court to be adjudicated, might be easier for the Board to bring before the court for a revocation action.

What does the Water Board think about that?  Board staff assert that they have “concurrent authority” with State Superior Courts.  That means they have equal power over water rights.

Credit: Pixabay
Courthouse.  Photo Credit: Pixabay

Some at the Board say they have authority over the same water rights that the court does.  Is that true?

Let’s say that it is true.  Has the Board ever asserted its authority over decreed water rights in court?  The last few times I asked Board staff, the answer was “no”.  So it may be true, but as far as I have heard, it has not been tested.  So, no, decreed rights cannot be revoked by the Board without going to court.

What if a water right is managed by a water district, irrigation district, or other agency?  It boils down to, who owns the water rights?  If the district or agency owns them, then they can usually reassign them because of non-payment, and for some other reasons, too.  If the landowners own the water rights, then all the preceding paragraphs of this post apply.  The agency or district just wheels the water, for which they can collect fees for operation (labor) and maintenance if their bylaws allow.

Summarizing the subject of losing post-1914 appropriative water rights for five years of non-use, then, they can be lost if the water right holder admits it, or if there is good evidence that water has not been used.  Pre-1914 rights are harder to lose but it can happen.  The Board cannot revoke riparian rights because they are defined in the State Constitution.  Court-decreed rights cannot be revoked by the Board without going to the court with a petition or as part of a lawsuit.

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:

**********************************

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.

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.

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.

But What About MY Water Right? I Don’t Care About Someone Else’s.

Senior Rights
  Water Rights Certificate. Photo: Los Angeles Daily News

Do you have a water right?  Then that is the one you care about.  General information is interesting, but not too useful or relevant.  When it comes down to it, your water right is the one you have to understand eight ways from
Sunday, and your water right is the one you have to defend.

But look at rights from another angle.  What rights do we as citizens of the United States all have, that we all really need to know?  Every U.S. citizen wants to be able to say what he wants, go to church or not, and attend political and protest meetings.  Where does it say that the federal government cannot prohibit or compel certain speech, church participation, and attend political meetings?

Of course you know that these rights are protected by the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution.  Most of us learned this before we got

http://www.educationviews.org/law-protect-free-speech-top-churchman/
Free Speech Protest. Photo Credit: educationviews.org

to high school.  482 short words protect your and my freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petition; right to keep and bear arms; right not to be forced to quarter soldiers; freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures; right to due process of law, freedom from self-incrimination, freedom from being tried twice for the same allegation; rights of accused persons, (speedy and public trial); right of trial by jury in civil cases; freedom from excessive bail, cruel and unusual punishments; other rights of the people; powers reserved to the states.

Imagine having your house searched and not knowing what rights protect you.  How could you demand that soldiers do not forcibly enter your home, without

Warrant Sign, Photo Credit: 24hourbrowardbailbonds.com
Warrant Sign, Photo Credit: 24hourbrowardbailbonds.com

any knowledge of the 3rd Amendment?  Or, imagine being arrested during a traffic stop because you refused to let police search your vehicle.  What if you didn’t know anything about the 4th Amendment, which protects you against unreasonable searches and seizures?  How quickly life, liberty, and property can be lost when the accused does not know his or her constitutional rights!

How does this relate to water rights?  Who knows, you or one of your family might buy land with a different kind of water right.  If you have a summary understanding of water rights, you’ll be in a lot better place to know what the right is worth, how much water you might really get, and when.  What if an attorney or a government agency tells you that your property lost its water right – how could you even know you have an argument without some basic understanding?  Even when landowners get legal help, it can be pretty expensive…where knowing in advance could save hassle, time, and money.

One of my earlier posts has a bullet list that can be memorized, or printed on a card for a wallet or purse:

  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 appropriative rights  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(s).

Please leave a comment, correction, complaint, humor, or other message below:

For comparison purposes, here is the United States Bill Of Rights, conveniently available on the home page of the Bill Of Rights Institute:

Amendment I
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the

U.S. Constitution, Photo Credit: constitution.org
U.S. Constitution, Photo Credit: constitution.org

government for a redress of grievances.

Amendment II
A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

Amendment III
No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

Amendment IV
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Amendment V
No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

Amendment VI
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.

Amendment VII
In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

Amendment VIII
Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

Amendment IX
The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Amendment X
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.

What Happens To Surface Water Rights When Farms And Ranches Subdivide?

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.