New water rights guide helps California landowners, streams

There are many things rural California landowners can do to leave more water in streams for fish and wildlife. Most involve changes to water use practices that will also increase the security of the landowner’s water supply. So why don’t more landowners do this? 

One answer is California’s complex system of water rights. It can be difficult to figure out what kind of water rights a water user has, let alone whether those rights would allow him or her to change their existing practices. 

A new guide produced by Trout Unlimited aims to help fix this problem and improve public awareness of how water can legally be taken from streams in California – or left instream to provide more water for fish, wildlife, and recreation. A Guide to California Water Rights for Small Water Users is a first-of-its-kind handbook that helps small water users answer a basic question: Do I have a water right covering my existing or proposed water use, and if not, do I need to obtain one from the Water Board?

More specifically, the Guide provides a straightforward, easy-to-read introduction for small water users—typically rural residents or farmers who get their water from nearby wells, springs, or streams rather than a municipal system or irrigation district. While small-scale water use by such entities is common in California, the legal rights and obligations surrounding these uses can be complex.

TU’s California Water Attorney, Matt Clifford, giving a presentation on water rights to rural landowners in 2017.

Moreover, the requirements for diverting and using water in California vary depending on the user’s location, source of the water, the method by which the user pumps or diverts water, and the method by which water is used, among other factors. The new guide walks the reader through the different types of California water rights and reviews which types of diversion and use require approval from the State Water Board.

Funding for this project was provided by the California Wildlife Conservation Board’s Proposition 1 Streamflow Program and The Nature Conservancy. TU extends special thanks to the staff at the Division of Water Rights at the State Water Resources Control Board for their assistance. Trout Unlimited appreciates the strong support for this project from all of these excellent partners.

A Guide to California Water Rights for Small Water Users is a product of TU’s work in California to recover native coho salmon and steelhead runs in coastal streams. This effort focuses principally on restoring habitat, improving fish passage, and enhancing dry season streamflows through cooperative projects.

Making progress in this work frequently depends on partnerships with rural landowners and farmers willing to exercise their water rights and adjust their water use to benefit stream ecology. For the past decade TU has worked through a comprehensive program supported by water attorneys and water policy experts to address this challenge. This program involves presentations to public audiences by TU staff, collaborative outreach with many key partners, and production of educational materials—including the production in 2016 of A Practitioner’s Guide to Instream Flow Transactions in California, a handbook for water rights holders who want to dedicate water to the environment, through a partnership with the Small Watershed Instream Flow Transfers (SWIFT) group.

By Sam Davidson. Sam Davidson hired on at Trout Unlimited in 2003, and has served as communications director for TU’s Western Water Project, field director for TU’s public…