History of the Water Boards

The Early Years

California’s water is vital to every aspect of our lives. Water has played a major, and often contentious, part in shaping of our state since California entered the union in the mid-1800s.

Through a ballot initiative in the early 20th Century, law-makers passed a Constitutional amendment declaring that our water resources ‘shall put water to the highest beneficial use possible and shall not waste water or use it unreasonably.”

More than 40 years ago, the Legislature recognized that we would not have enough clean water for agricultural, municipal, industrial, environmental and other uses unless water quality and water quantity decision-making were coordinated. So it was then that the State Water Resources Control Board was created and given the broad authority and responsibility to protect water quality, and balance competing demands on our water resources and attempt to resolve decades-long water disputes.

This new regulatory board merged the functions of two previous Boards: the State Water Quality Control Board and the State Water Rights Board. The former had its roots in the late 1940s, when legislators created a streamlined regulatory agency to address rising water quality problems with the state’s explosive industrial and population growth. A water rights commission, which preceded the water rights board, was created in the early 1900s to arbitrate and resolve the state's water battles, which began during the 1849 Gold Rush. Back then, prospectors from throughout the world raced to the Sierra Nevada Mountains to stake their claims, using the cold mountain streams as a tool to unearth gold.

Today’s State Water Resources Control Board

Today the five-member State Water Board allocates water rights, adjudicates water right disputes, develops statewide water protection plans, establishes water quality standards, and guides the nine Regional Water Quality Control Boards located in the major watersheds of the state. The Regional Boards, each comprised of seven members, serve as the frontline for state and federal water pollution control efforts.

Balancing All Water Uses

Since its creation in 1967, the State Water Board has followed its original mandate to balance, to the extent possible, all uses of California's water resources. The onerous task – balancing competing water needs in a state where water supply can be located hundreds of miles from its heaviest demand – is often difficult.

Today’s challenges are California’s rapid population growth, and the continuing struggle over water flows. The State Water Board faces tough demands: to fix ailing sewer systems; to build new wastewater treatment plants; to tackle the cleanup of underground water sources harmed by the technology and industry that has catapulted our state into global prominence.