Water is the lifeblood of California, a precious resource essential to our daily lives and integral to our environment. Yet, managing this invaluable resource has proven to be a complex challenge, deeply rooted in the state’s Gold Rush-era water rights system. The need for transparency, fairness, and accountability in water allocation has never been more apparent, especially in the face of climate change. Senator Ben Allen, a Democrat from Redondo Beach, has introduced SB 389 to address this issue head-on.
Understanding the Problem
Under California’s intricate water rights system, “senior water rights” holders, those with claims to water predating a 1914 law or those with water flowing past their property (riparian rights), have been operating without permits or licenses. This lack of oversight has allowed them to use approximately one-third of the state’s surface water supply, often without a clear understanding of their water use. The state’s power to investigate and regulate these rights has remained vague.
What Does SB 389 Aim to Achieve?
SB 389 represents a significant step towards rectifying this situation. The bill grants the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) the authority to investigate and verify all water rights claims, including riparian and pre-1914 rights. This means that the SWRCB can determine whether these rights are valid and, if necessary, take action against unauthorized water users.
The legislation allows state water regulators to initiate investigations, issue orders for information, and, following hearings, take measures to curb any unauthorized water use. If it’s discovered that a water supplier has been taking more water than entitled, the SWRCB can enforce corrective actions.
Why SB 389 Matters
Water is a public resource, as vital to our well-being as the air we breathe. California has made significant strides in managing air quality since the 1960s, benefiting all its residents. In the era of climate change, SB 389 is a crucial step towards adapting how we manage our water for the benefit of all Californians.
Presently, California lacks the essential ability to accurately assess water availability and usage across all diverters. SB 389 aims to change that by allowing the SWRCB to review, verify, and make decisions on the most senior water rights, specifically pre-1914 appropriative and riparian water rights. These rights account for up to 35% of all surface water diverted and represent about 45% of all water rights holders in the state.
SB 389 Signed by Governor Newsom on October 9, 2023
Governor Gavin Newsom has signed SB 389 into law. SB 389 by Senator Ben Allen (D – Santa Monica) gives the State Water Resources Control Board (Water Board) the power to verify pre-1914 and riparian water rights.
With the Governor’s signature, the Water Board gains a crucial tool – the ability to promptly investigate and determine whether claims by senior water right-holders are inflated or represent the amounts these claimants have the legitimate right to divert and use. In allowing the Water Board to verify these claimed water rights, more water may become available for junior water rights, fisheries, and other beneficial uses in times of scarcity.
The Water Code amendments in SB 389 address a gap in Water Board authority, finally allowing the Water Board to selectively investigate and determine whether a water right claimant, diverter, or user is diverting or using water under a defensible claim of right. With this authority, the Water Board will have the ability to better operate our water system for the benefit of all users and the ecology of California’s many beautiful streams.
We thank Governor Newsom for taking this modest, but wise step to help our state adapt to climate change and foster equity in water rights for all Californians.
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