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”:


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, 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, environmental, and urban/industrial uses
  5. Appropriative 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.

All Water Rights, California

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