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.

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