CSPA Water Rights Initiative


CSPA has been a strong advocate in regulatory processes since our foundation in 1983. Our mission statement reflects it, and our record of participation proves it. One of our overriding principles is that if laws already on the books were enforced, California’s fisheries would generally be in excellent condition. If regulators did their jobs, CSPA staff could spend a lot more time on rivers and a lot less time in offices, meeting halls, and courtrooms.

The State Water Resources Control Board is the single venue where CSPA has pursued the greatest portion of our regulatory advocacy. A large part of our State Board advocacy deals with water rights.

Water rights protests

Major water rights actions often have humble beginnings in protests. Whenever an entity seeks a permit for a new water right, it must file an application with the State Board. Similarly, whenever an existing user seeks to change an existing water rights permit or license, it must file a petition with the State Board. Notice of new applications and petitions is posted on the State Board’s website, and is also available through a State Board listserve. With each notice, a protest period of 30 to 60 days is specified.

CSPA often protests water rights applications and petitions on three grounds: that they are contrary to law, that they would not serve the public interest, and that they would have an adverse environmental impact. Any of these reasons alone is sufficient for the State Board to reject an application or petition, but generally CSPA protests on all three grounds.

CSPA’s strategy for water rights protests

CSPA staff reviews every water rights application and petition that is noticed by the State Board. Decisions on whether to protest are based on multiple factors, including:

  • Known or likely environmental impacts
  • Magnitude of proposed diversions
  • Availability of water in affected watersheds
  • Important legal issues
  • Important policy issues
  • Nexus to CSPA’s mission

CSPA files some protests in order to assure appropriate mitigations or instream improvements, like fish screens on existing diversions, or increased instream flows. However, CSPA files many protests to seek denial of the application or petition altogether: in general, less water diverted from rivers means more water in rivers for fish.

Follow-up to protests

Filing a water rights protest is a serious exercise that requires investigation of the particulars of a proposed action and legal research, in addition to the composition of the protest itself. But acceptance of a protest by the Board is only the first step in a lengthy process. The applicant or petitioner is asked to respond to an accepted protest, and the protestant in turn must state whether the response is sufficient to resolve the protest. If not, the applicant or petitioner is given a defined amount of time to try to resolve all of the outstanding protests; this may involve a series of meetings. Environmental impact reports are also often required for proposed projects. For protestants, this means review, comments, and sometimes separate legal actions.

If protests cannot be resolved, and the parties are timely in following procedures, the Board may grant a hearing to address outstanding protests. Usually, the Board will issue a draft order to be considered as the focus of the hearing, and a series of key questions to be addressed by the parties. A water rights hearing is an evidentiary process where applicants/petitioners and protestants must submit testimony and exhibits to support their claims, testify under oath, and be subject to cross-examination and rebuttal.

Legal challenge through lawsuits is always a possible final step following hearing.

A CSPA protest began the process that killed the water rights for Auburn Dam

In 1998, CSPA protested a petition for extension of time filed by the Bureau of Reclamation for the water rights permits for Auburn Dam. The permit was granted in 1971, but the dam was not constructed, and the time for putting the permit to use had run out by many years. Even after 1998, the State Board was extremely indulgent with the Bureau, asking the Bureau only for limited progress on the permit, including completion of an environmental document. The Bureau repeatedly answered that it was waiting for Congress to fund the project.

Ten years later, in 2008, 37 years after the permits for Auburn Dam had been granted, the Board moved to revoke the permits. A hearing was scheduled. CSPA and our allies, most notably including Friends of the River, submitted exhibits and testimony.

We stated in written testimony: "After 37 years, there is no project, no prospect of a project, no Congressional interest in a project, no federal funding for a project, no funding partners for a project, and no environmental documentation for a project." In oral testimony, we framed two issues for the Board. First: "Who interprets, carries out, and enforces the Water Code, the Board or the Bureau?" And second: "What goes for all the small water rights that have been revoked in the last couple of years must also go for the Bureau."

In early 2009, The State Board unanimously revoked the permits for Auburn Dam.

Three decades of CSPA water rights protests

Similar to our protest of the permits for Auburn Dam, CSPA has many active water rights protests that date back to the 1990’s. Among the most notable are protests on application 30166 for the Big Sur River (El Sur Ranch), and application 29835 for the Mokelumne River (a consortium of San Joaquin County interests styled as the Mokelumne River Water and Power Authority).

The Board conducted hearings for El Sur Ranch in 2011. To date the Board has not made a decision on the application. There has been no movement at the State Board on application 29835 for over a decade. This protracted delay is common.

In 2019, the Administrative Hearings Office (AHO) of the State Board’s Division Water Rights was created to help resolve the backlog of pending water rights applications, petitions, and enforcement actions. Several water rights matters on which CSPA has active protests have been assigned to the AHO.

The table below shows many of CSPA’s active or recently resolved water rights protests and their status at the State Board.

Number Diverter Source of Water Year CSPA Protest Files Status
30166 El Sur Ranch Big Sur River 1990 Hearing 2011; assigned to AHO 2021
29875 San Joaquin County Mokelumne River 1990 No action since 2013
31553, 31554 Rogina Water Company Russian River 2007 No action since 2007
12919B, 12920B Mendocino Flood Dist. Russian River 2008 Assigned to AHO 2021
476, 22061 Paradise Irrigation Dist. Little Butte Creek 2008 No action since 2008
29657 San Joaquin County South Fork American River 2008 Canceled by State Water Board on AHO recommendation
14313 Cal-American Water Co. Bear Gulch, San Mateo County 2009 No action since 2009
1270 et al. Nevada Irrigation Dist. Yuba and Bear rivers, et al. 2009 No action since 2009
12842 No. San Joaquin Water Cons Dist Mokelumne River 2009 Resolved protest; modified permit issued 2015
5644, 5645 El Dorado Irrigation Dist., Water Agency South Fork American River 2009; 2020 Proposed new project changed by petitioner/applicant; new petition to add point of diversion to existing permit
12721 et al. Central Valley Project, Bureau of Reclamation Rivers and reservoirs throughout Central Valley 2009 No action since 1985 (petition is to extend time to fully use water allowed in about 30 permits)
5629 et al. State Water Project, CA Dept. of Water Resources Feather River, Delta 2010 No action since 2010 (petition is to extend time to fully use water allowed in 6 permits)
12919A Sonoma County Water Agency Russian River 2010 Petitioner revised project in 2016; expect further revisions
17002 Zone 7 Water Agency State Water Project; Alameda Creek watershed 2010 No action since 2010
11587, 12179, 21471B Bureau of Reclamation petitions Santa Margarita River 2010 Protest dismissed 2017; permit issued 2018
5634x01 Nevada Irrigation Dist. Bear River; new Centennial Dam 2016 Assigned to AHO 2021
Enforcement action Mable Mountain Ranch Stanshaw Creek, Klamath R. trib. N/A Hearing 2017; assigned to AHO 2022
5629 et al. Dept. of Water Resources “WaterFix” north Delta diversion 2016 Hearings 2015-2018; DWR withdrew petition for added point of diversion; new hearing for modified project expected 2024
25517 et al. Sites Authority Sacramento River, proposed Sites Reservoir Likely 2023 Application submitted 2022; protests likely in 2023; hearing likely 2024 or 2025