I've been learning a bit about water rights and water use in California recently. I've lived here all of my life and have been surprised to learn how little I've known up to now about this. What I have also found interesting is how little education on this there is out there; I'm not sure who should teach this or when, but most of these laws have been around a long time (since 1914) and it seems like more of us should know this stuff (but then, maybe more of you know more than I do!). I have heard that back in the 1990's (before I was a property owner) there was a workshop held locally that covered a lot of this - maybe it's time for that again? All of the information provided here is taken from the State Water Resources Control Board website - www.waterboards.ca.gov - and much, much more information can be found there.
In California you may need a water right to use water, or you may need to register your use, or you may not need to do anything. And what is a water right? A "right" is actually permission from the state to take water. These are also called permits - water right permits. So when do you do what? According to the State Water Resources Control Board, it depends on where you are taking the water from. If you take water from "a lake, river, stream or creek, or from underground supplies" you need a water right from the state. (Ground water should not be confused with "underground" supplies - I'll expound on that in a future article.) The next sentence tells you that water control in California is complicated and it surely is - there seem to be exceptions for everything and each situation appears to be unique and needs to be looked at individually. The first exception to the above is if you are taking a small amount for domestic use or a small amount for livestock watering (a stock pond). In this case, you don't need a water right but you do need to register your use with the state. This allows you up to 4500 gallons per day "for immediate use" and up to 10 acre feet of storage, such as a pond. However, you can't just register to take the full amount - you have to justify the amount you will be taking, completing a form that asks how many people, how much garden, how many head of livestock and so on. Most of us who use water from springs for our houses just need to complete the registration and be done with it. However, before you can begin that process, you need to contact the Department of Fish and Game and get their input, called conditions, and provide that with your application - oh, and yes, there's a fee, too. Of course, you have to renew this registration as well, although the website is unclear on this and just says "when requested by the Division of Water Rights."
One thing I have learned (and the website cautions right away) is that just because you have an existing spring or pond or are taking water, don't assume you have a water right or that someone before you obtained that right. You can check on the Water Resources Board website and see if you have a water right and then take any needed action. I do know that the Water Resources Control Board has been extremely helpful in educating me, helping me fill out forms and making sure I do things the right way. I also believe enforcement has been lax and is haphazard except in some areas (those of you with water draining into the Navarro probably are more educated than some of the rest of us) and this hasn't helped in educating property owners.
There's a lot more to this and I'll add some more next week. This may stir up more questions than it answers - feel free to email me questions and I'll try to get answers in the next article.) But this should be enough to get you started thinking and perhaps acting proactively. Certainly, if you plan to sell your property you should make sure this area is cleared up; as a buyer, this is definitely something you want to be aware of.