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.

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eWRIMS Board Water Rights Search – Part 2

In Part 1 of this discussion, we looked at the different types of water rights included in the Water Board’s eWRIMS water rights search Water_Board_eWRIMS_screenshotdatabase.  Now we’ll talk about how to narrow down your search to find just the water rights of interest.  The majority of questions people have are about their own water rights.  How can you find out what eWRIMS has about your water right?

If you pick the eWRIMS Database System link, and hit the “Accept” button at the bottom of the next page, you’ll arrive at at the Water Rights Records Search pageWater Rights Records Search screenshot - Edited.  This looks like a data entry form, and allows you to search by water right type, status, ID, county, etc., and most relevant for finding your own, by Primary Owner.  Whoops!  I sure thought it was – it is now disabled.    Maybe that’s temporary, but even a couple of weeks ago I was able to put in “California”, for example, and find the rights held by State agencies.  As a matter of fact, none of the searches I am trying right now even list any results in the “Holder Name column.

UPDATE:  Search by Primary Owner is working again as of June 29, 2016 at 8:30 A.M.  Thanks, eWRIMS folks for restoring it!

Next, try your County, Source (River name or Source Name), Entity Type, and Hayfork Creek Trinityany other information that you know.  This will give you a list of results.  For example, entering Trinity for County and Hayfork Creek for Source yields 31 results.  Without the “Holder Name” listed it is tough to tell which one is yours…unless you also know one of your IDs.  If that functionality is restored that it makes it easy.  One CAVEAT – if you or the previous owner have not updated the current owner (as the Board requires), then the person’s name will be some previous owner.  You’ll likely recognize it.

eWRIMS GIS Hayfork - EditedIf “you can’t get there from here”, then you can search by map, in the eWRIMS Web Mapping Application (GIS).  The map starts by showing all of California and you zoom in to your area.  When you zoom in far enough, you’ll see rectangular labels of various colors start to appear.  You can click on these to see the individual Application, Permit, License, or Statement of Use.  The screenshot above shows part of Hayfork Creek in Trinity County.

If you have not used eWRIMS, try it out for your and your neighbors’ water rights.  Remember, most riparian and nearly all adjudicated water rights will NOT show up here, but pre-1914, post-1914, some riparian, and some other rights will.  Next time we’ll talk about some of the information you can find on forms for the various rights and statements.

For now, happy water rights searching!

Can I lose my water right?

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 are major exceptions, 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 pasture with cattle, or 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.

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.

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 Is Your Place Of Use?

Where can I use my water right?  Can I change the location, or make it bigger?

Water rights most often have a place of use.  The place of use may be defined in a court decree or adjudication, and shown on an associated map.  In most court decrees, the place of the use for a water right is “forever”, unless another case comes up to change that place.

For pre-1914 rights which are not part of a court decree, the place of use is defined…somewhere.  Hopefully the water right holder has an old map, or evidence that the farm or ranch has the same boundaries today that it did when water started being used.  The map might be in the attic, or someone may have sent a copy of the map to the State Water Resources Control Board.

Riparian rights belong to parcels touching a stream, natural lake, or spring.  The requirement for us is that it be reasonable and beneficial.  So the place of use might be a whole parcel of ownership, or part of it, but the place of use cannot be off that parcel.  Riparian rights are defined by the California State Constitution, but the place of use is not defined except that it has to touch the water.

Post-1914 rights issued by the State Water Resources Control Board, and used under a permit or license, have the place of use defined.  It might be by 1/4 1/4 Section, or 40-acre pieces.  It might be by coordinates in a surveying system, such as the California Coordinate System.  Sometimes there are maps with permits and licenses, sometimes not.

This is a quick summary of the concept of place of use.  We’ll go into more detail later, with some examples.  For now, good night to all.

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!

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.