Water Rights

Frequently Asked Questions

These are commonly asked questions and answers about California water right laws. If you are looking for information on reporting your water use or using the eWRIMS online reporting system, please search the information below. If you are looking for FAQs related to the Water Rights Online Forms (WROF) Portal, please visit our dedicated WROF FAQs page.

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What is a water right?

A water right is legal permission to use a reasonable amount of water for a beneficial purpose such as swimming, fishing, farming or industry.

Do I need a water right?

If you take water from a lake, river, stream, or creek, or from underground supplies for a beneficial use, the California Water Code (Division 2) requires that you have a water right. Because California water right law is complicated, you may have a water right (such as a riparian or pre-1914 appropriative) even if you do not have a water right permit or other type of water right issued by the state.

Even if you take and use a small amount of water only for domestic purposes or use a small amount of water for commercial livestock watering purposes, you need a water right of some type. If you do not have another basis of right to rely on, you can acquire a water right for certain small diversions by registering your use with the Division of Water Rights, notify the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and agree to follow conditions the Department of Fish and Wildlife may set to protect fish and wildlife. The maximum use allowed under such a registration is 4,500 gallons per day for immediate use or 10 acre-feet per year for storage in a pond or reservoir. You cannot register to divert water from a stream if the Water Board has declared the stream to be fully appropriated. If you use more water than is allowed under a registration, or if you use a portion of the water for a purpose other than domestic purposes or livestock watering, and you do not already have a water right, you must apply for and receive a permit from the State Water Board’s Division of Water Rights before you can use water.

You should not assume that you have a water right just because you have a water diversion or a dam on your property. You can check with the Division of Water Rights to determine if you have a water right permit, license, certificate or registration, or if someone has claimed a water right for your water project.

Why does the State require water users to have a water right?

Water is protected for the use and benefit of all Californians. California's waters cannot be owned by individuals, groups, businesses, or governmental agencies. But permits, licenses, and registrations give individuals and others the right to beneficially use reasonable amounts of water.

How does the water right system affect me?

If your food was grown or raised by California farmers or ranchers, you depend on someone who either has a water right or buys water from a water supplier who has a water right (such as an irrigation district). If you live in the city or suburbs and drink, cook with, wash with, or water your yard with water, you are able to do so because your city has a water right or buys water from someone who has a water right. When you turn on your lights or use appliances in California, it is likely that at least some of the electricity you are using was generated by a power company that is able to operate a hydropower plant because it has a water right. If you swim, fish, or boat in a man-made lake or raft below a dam, you are able to do so because the dam owner has a water right.

Who is responsible for administering water rights law?

In California, water rights law is administered by the State Water Resources Control Board (often called simply the State Water Board). Within the State Water Board, the Division of Water Rights acts on behalf of the State Water Board for day to day matters. The State Water Board is the only agency with authority to administer water rights in California. Local governments, water districts, and the California Regional Water Quality Control Boards do not administer water rights. The State Water Board shares the authority to enforce water right laws with the state courts.

What are the benefits of water right laws?

Water rights laws help provide certainty that a water user will have water available in the future. Water rights are based on a priority system that is used to determine who can continue taking water when there is not enough water to supply all needs. Those with high priority rights know that they are likely to receive water. Those with low priority rights know that they may not receive water in all years and can plan accordingly. Water users make economic decisions based on the certainty of their water supply. For instance, farmers who have a high certainty of receiving water, even in dry years, plant permanent crops like fruit trees or vineyards, which can be sold for higher prices.

Water right permits also help protect the environment from impacts that occur as a result of water diversions. Water right permits include conditions to protect other water users and the environment. The water right permitting process can stop bad projects from starting, can modify poorly planned projects, and can protect existing streamflows. The water right permit process cannot by itself restore streams, but because the State Water Board has continuing authority over permits that it issues, it can modify permits and licenses it previously issued to require more protective conditions. The State Water Board must provide the permit or license holder with notice and opportunity for a hearing before making changes. If the permit holder disagrees with the State Water Board's decision to modify the permit, it can ask the court to review the matter.

I moved here from another state. Are the rules in California the same as the rules in other states?

No. Each state has different laws regarding how people can use the state’s water. All western states have enacted laws that require water users to get a permit from the state. In general, those laws provide the highest priority to the earliest water users. This is known as the “Doctrine of Prior Appropriation” and is sometimes called “first in time, first in right.” However, even in the west, the laws vary from state to state. Most eastern states, which have different rainfall patterns, do not have a permitting system. In those states, water is used under a principle of “share and share alike.”

What happens if I take water without a water right?

The use of water without a water right is a trespass against the State of California and can lead to fines of up to $500 per day of use. If you are using water illegally, you can be required to stop taking and using water.

How do I know if I need a water right permit?

If you already have a water right, you do not need to apply for a permit. California law distinguishes between surface water and groundwater . To get a right to groundwater, you simply extract the water and use it for a beneficial purpose. There is one exception, which applies to “subterranean streams flowing in known and definite channels.” If you use groundwater on land that is over the groundwater basin from which you took the water, you have an “overlying groundwater right.” If you use the water somewhere else, you have an “appropriative groundwater right.” Overlying groundwater rights have a higher priority than appropriative groundwater rights. The State Water Board does not have authority to issue permits for groundwater diversions, except for diversions from subterranean streams. However, the state does have the authority to take action to stop wasteful or unreasonable uses of groundwater or to stop groundwater diversions that harm state resources, such as fisheries. If you live in certain areas and pump groundwater, you may be subject to regulation by a local entity, like the county or a groundwater management district, even if you do not need a water right permit. Check with local authorities before pumping.

Surface water rights are more complicated. California recognizes several different types of rights to take and use surface water. Some water rights can only be held by government. These include pueblo rights, which can only be held by municipalities that were originally Mexican or Spanish pueblos, and federal reserved rights, which can only be held by the federal government.

Individuals can hold riparian water rights, appropriative rights, and prescriptive water rights. If you began using surface water or groundwater from a subterranean stream after 1914, when the State Water Commission Act was enacted, unless you have a riparian right you must apply for and receive approval from the State Water Board before using water. If the state approves your application, you will receive a water right permit. The permit will allow you to develop your water supply project and to take and use water. After you have developed your project and used water, the State Water Board will determine how much water was beneficially used and will issue you a water right license. You can click here to see a flowchart of the water right permitting process.

What is a riparian right?

A riparian water right is a right to use the natural flow of water on riparian land. Riparian land is land that touches a lake, river, stream, or creek. Land that is in the public domain does not have riparian rights. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management manages public domain land.

Most eastern states recognize riparian rights. Most western states either never recognized riparian rights or no longer do so. California and Oklahoma are the only western states that continues to recognize riparian rights. The California Legislature has enacted very few laws regarding riparian rights. As a result, riparian rights have been frequently litigated. As a result of these lawsuits, the courts have clarified rules that apply to riparian rights.

Water can only be diverted under a riparian right when that water is used on land that drains back to the lake, river, stream, or creek from which the water was taken. Only the natural flow of water can be diverted under a riparian right. Water that is imported into a watershed from another river, stream, or creek cannot be used under a riparian right. Water cannot be stored during a wet time for use during a drier time under a riparian right. Neither can water released from an upstream storage reservoir be used by a downstream user under a riparian right. Because a riparian right only allows the use of natural flow, it is possible to have water available under a riparian right during wetter years or months and not during drier years or months. This is common in California, because of the presence of many ephemeral streams.

A riparian right exists on the smallest piece of land that touches a water source. If riparian land is subdivided so that some parts of the land do not touch the water, those lands will lose their riparian rights unless steps are taken to preserve them when the subdivision takes place. Riparian rights that attach to a small parcel cannot be used on adjacent parcels, even if those parcels touch the riparian parcel. Water obtained through a riparian right must be used on the parcel connected to the riparian right.

Riparian rights usually come with owning a parcel of land that is adjacent to a source of water, and the rights remain with the parcel when it changes hands. However, a riparian right can be lost even if land is not cut off from the water source. This can happen when the owner of the riparian land sells or transfers the land to someone but explicitly separates the riparian right from the parcel. Once it is lost, a riparian right can almost never be restored. Riparian water rights cannot be sold or transferred other than with the riparian land.

However, riparian rights are not lost by non-use. A person who has a riparian right, but is not currently using water, has a "dormant" riparian right. He or she can begin using water under that dormant right at any time. If the new riparian use results in a junior water right holder not having enough water, the junior water right holder must decrease his or her diversion and use of water until the senior water right holder has enough water to meet his or her reasonable needs. Riparian right holders on a stream course all have the same priority. If there is not enough water available for competing riparian users, they must share the available supply according to their needs. Generally in this situation, water used for interior domestic purposes, such as drinking, cooking and bathing, has the highest priority.

What is a prescriptive right?

A prescriptive right is a right that is acquired through adverse possession of someone else’s water right. It is similar to a “squatter’s right” to land. Prescriptive rights are difficult to obtain and can only be granted by a court. Most people in California do not have and cannot acquire a prescriptive right. The courts have clarified that since 1914, the only way to acquire a new water right is to apply for and receive a water right permit from the State Water Board.

What is an appropriative water right?

Someone who takes water for use on non-riparian land or who uses water that would not be there under natural conditions on riparian land appropriates water. Water right permits and licenses issued by the State Water Board and its predecessors are appropriative water rights.

Do I need a water right permit if I began using water before 1914?

An appropriative water right that was acquired before 1914 is called a pre-1914 appropriative water right. If you have a pre-1914 right, you do not need a water right permit unless you have increased your use of water since 1914. If you have increased the amount of water over the amount used in 1914, you must get a water right permit for the new amount, unless you can prove that you had a plan in place before 1914 to use the additional water after 1914. If you can show that you began planning to use water before 1914 but did not begin using the water until after 1914, you may not need a water right permit if you diligently took steps to construct your project and to reasonably and beneficially use water.

You may have lost your pre-1914 appropriative water right if your construction activities or diversion and use of water lapsed for a period of five or more consecutive years. Once you lose an appropriative water right, you must apply for and receive a new water right permit from the State if you want to use water again.

How do I know if I have a riparian, prescriptive, or pre-1914 water right?

These types of water rights can only be confirmed by the courts. You can only tell for certain that you have one of these types of water rights if a court has issued a decree that confirms that the right exists. The rights to water on certain rivers, streams and creeks in California, or parts of those waters, have been adjudicated through court action. In those cases, you can review a water right decree to determine if you have a confirmed riparian, pre-1914, or prescriptive water right. Decrees usually identify the water right by the name of the person who held the right at the time the decree was issued. You may have to identify that person's name in order to determine whether or not you have a right that was confirmed in the decree. The decree may also identify where the water can be used under each decreed right. If that is the case, there is likely a map that you can use to help identify any rights that may attach to your property.

The State Water Board has assisted the courts in investigating and resolving some water right claims. We have copies of the decrees issued in these cases. We have copies of some other decrees, but most often we do not. We have posted the decrees that we have on our Website. The Superior Court of each county has copies of decrees that it has issued, but you will have a difficult time finding a decree unless you know the case number assigned by the court.

What should I do if I think I have a riparian or pre-1914 appropriative water right but the courts have not decided my right?

You must file a document called a “Statement of Water Diversion and Use” with the State Water Board's Division of Water Rights if you divert surface water or water from a subterranean stream unless your diversion meets the requirements for one of the exemptions. The exemptions are detailed on our Statement of Diversion and Use program web page. We will record your claim without verifying that you have a right. Every year after you file, we will ask you to file a supplemental statement that describes your diversion and use of water. (rev 07/28/10)

How do I file a “Statement of Water Diversion and Use” with the state?

Please visit the page for the Statement of Water Diversion and Use program, available here.

How do I know if I have a water right permit or license?

The Division of Water Rights issues water right permits and licenses. You can check to see if you have a water right permit by using the eWRIMS database System. See our eWRIMS introductory web page. Other entities issue permits or other types of approvals that may allow you to build a dam, or engage in another kind of construction activity. These permits are not water rights and do not allow you to use water.

We index our water rights by the name of the last known owner. However, we are not informed by the county recorder, county tax assessor, or title company when property is transferred. Instead, water right owners are required to notify the Division of Water Rights when they transfer their rights. This frequently does not occur. If a previous owner has not notified us that he or she sold the property, there is a chance that the water right will still be shown under the name of the old owner.

You can also find whether a water right exists for a piece of property if you know the location of your point of diversion. You can visually inspect maps available on our GIS system at https://waterrightsmaps.waterboards.ca.gov using your Internet Browser. We are in the process of developing our GIS system so that we can also show where water used under permits and licenses can be used. That information will be added to the system as our resources allow.

Why can’t I look up a water right by using my Assessor’s Parcel Number (APN)?

Assessor’s Parcel Numbers are frequently used to identify parcels of land. Because a water right can involve thousands of assessor’s parcels and because Assessor’s Parcel Numbers change, the land associated with a water right is not identified by Assessor's Parcel Number. Nevertheless, in a limited number of cases, our files may include the parcel number that was linked with the water right. In addition, we subscribe to a service that allows us to access some county real estate information, including Assessor’s Parcel Number. If you have your parcel number, we may be able to help you identify your water right if you contact us. Because our resources are limited, we are not able to assist you if your request involves more than one or two parcels or water rights. In that case, you might want to hire a water right attorney or consultant to do research for you.

What is the difference between a water right permit and a water right license?

A water right permit is an authorization to develop a water diversion and use project. The right to use water is obtained through actual use of water within the limits described in the permit. After you have received a water right permit, constructed your project, and used water, we will inspect your project. If you have used water beneficially and if you comply with all of the conditions in your permit, you will be offered a water right license. The water right license is a vested right that confirms your actual use. If you have not used all the water allowed by your permit, or if you have used water unreasonably, you will receive a license for less water than your permit allowed. You will receive a license for only that water that has been reasonably and beneficially used.

How do I get a water right permit?

  • File a fully completed water right application with the Division of Water Rights.
  • Pay all required fees
  • Provide sufficient information to allow the State Water Board to determine that there is water available for your proposed project.
    • Show that your proposed project would not deprive anyone who has a higher priority water right of the use of water under that right.
    • Show that your proposed project will not harm public trust resources (such as fish, recreation, and navigation uses) where it is likely feasible to protect those resources.
  • Show that your proposed project is in the public interest.
  • Provide adequate information so that the State Water Board can consider the impacts of your project on water quality and the environment as required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

A schematic of the permit process is on our Website. A schematic of the CEQA process is also available.

How long does it take to get a water right permit?

That depends on your project. We must comply with Water Code requirements that require us to provide others with information about your project. We must also comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which involves a public process. This process usually takes at least a year, and can take significantly longer depending on the project.

The time it takes to obtain a permit depends on:

  • The effects that your project could have on other water rights;
  • The effects your project could have on the environment, including aquatic species, particularly endangered species;
  • Whether anyone protests against issuing you a water right permit;
  • Whether there are other applicants competing for the same water supply;
  • Our staffing resources.

The Division has in excess of 500 pending water right applications. If you are able to provide all the necessary information, it may take three to four years to obtain a permit. If others protest your project or your project has the capacity to harm threatened or endangered species, it could take longer to get a permit.

How much does it cost to get a water right permit?

  • Getting a water right permit is expensive. We assess a water right application fee based on how much water you want permission to divert. The water right application fee is revised each year depending on the Division's budget, which is determined by the Governor and the Legislature. The minimum application fee is currently $1000. The current fee schedule is available on our Website.
  • When you file a water right application, you must also pay fees that the Division collects for the Department of Fish and Wildlife. These fees are set by law. The current is fee is $850.00.
  • Those who apply for a water right permit are required to pay for the preparation of documents that we prepare to comply with CEQA. Document preparation is usually done by an environmental consulting agency. This can cost $30,000 or more.
  • You will be required to pay a fee for the Department of Fish and Wildlife to review the environmental document prepared for the project before the Division can issue a permit. This fee is currently $1800 if the environmental documentation is a negative declaration or $2500 if the environmental documentation is an environmental impact report.
  • After getting a permit, you will be required to pay an annual fee to maintain it. The amount of the fee depends on how much water you are authorized to divert. The minimum annual fee is $100. The current fee schedule is available at on our Website.

What benefit do I enjoy as a result of getting a water right permit or license or filing my Statement of Water Diversion and Use with the Division of Water Rights?

  • You will have priority to use water over persons who later file for water rights from the same source.
  • The Division of Water Rights will notify you if someone is applying to divert water upstream from your diversion. You will have a chance to protest the proposed diversion and seek modification or denial of the project.
  • You will receive protection of your investment in the right to divert water for beneficial use on your farm for irrigation, a feedlot, recreational reservoir, or in your municipality, water supply district, or industry. If you have water rights, you have legal standing to assert those rights against later conflicting water users who do not have water rights.
  • If there is not enough water to supply the demands of all water users, the State Water Board will impose diversion restrictions. Those restrictions are imposed in order of water right priority. If you do not get a water right, the State will not protect you from those who developed their water use after you do.

Are there any other reasons I should comply with water right requirements?

  • To protect California water resources for future generations.
  • A diversion a without a water right is illegal, and you may be fined up to $500 per day of diversion and use.

Do I need other permits for my water supply project?

Yes. You will be required to obtain permits from other agencies before you can build and operate your water supply project, but those permits do not allow you to divert and use water. Other types of permits that you may be required to obtain are listed below. You should check with each of the agencies responsible for those permits to determine what you need to do.

  1. A Streambed Alternation Agreement from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (to ensure that any construction activity that occurs in a streambed does not harm fish or wildlife).
  2. A "take" permit from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife under the California Endangered Species Act (if your project has the potential to harm a State-protected species).
  3. A "take" permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the federal Endangered Species Act (if your project has the potential to harm a federally-protected species).
  4. A "take" permit from the National Marine Fisheries Service under the federal Endangered Species Act (if your project has the potential to harm a federally protected anadromous species). Anadromous species breed and rear their young in fresh water but spend most of their adult lives in the ocean. Salmon are an example of an anadromous species.
  5. A permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers under section 404 of the federal Clean Water Act (to protect from the effects of construction activity in waterways). If you are required to get a Clean Water Act section 404 permit, you will also need certification from the State Water Resources Control Board that your water diversion project will not violate California water quality standards. Obtaining this certification from the Water Board is a separate process from obtaining a water right permit or license.
  6. A National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit from a Regional Water Quality Control Board (to protect against water quality effects if you disturb more than one acre of land during construction related to your project). You may also be required to get other approvals from a Regional Water Quality Control Board if your project could harm water quality as a result of discharges to a navigable water or its tributaries.
  7. A permit from the California Department of Water Resources, Division of Dam Safety, if your project involves a dam that is 25 feet high or higher or a reservoir with a capacity of more than 49 acre-feet of water.
  8. A certification from the Secretary of the California Resources Agency to protect the free-flowing nature of streams if your project is on a wild and scenic river.

This is not a total list of permits that may be required for your project. For example, you may be required to get permits from your county, such as grading or building permits. Some counties require permits for the pumping of groundwater.

Are there any projects for which the Division of Water Rights will not accept an application?

The Division of Water Rights will not accept an application:

  • If a stream is fully appropriated. Streams (or stream reaches) that have been declared by the State Water Board to be fully appropriated are listed on our Web page, Fully Appropriated Streams.
  • If the applicant proposes to build a dam or other obstruction on a wild and scenic river. Rivers designated as wild and scenic by the State of California are listed in Public Resources Code, section 5093.54.
  • If the application is for an onstream dam on a Class I or Class II stream within the geographic area covered by the Policy for Maintaining Instream Flows in Northern California Coastal Streams. Please refer to this question above for more information.

Are there any projects for which the Division of Water Rights will not issue a permit?

The Division of Water Rights will not issue a permit:

  • Unless there is water available for appropriation. Even if a stream is not on the Fully Appropriated Streams List, water may be unavailable for appropriation. A stream cannot be listed as being fully appropriated unless the State Water Board or a court has previously issued a decision finding that no water is available. Therefore, you cannot assume water is available just because the stream from which you want to take water is not on the list.
  • If the proposed project is not in the public interest.

The Division of Water Rights is unlikely to issue a permit:

  • If the proposed project unreasonably harms fish, wildlife, the environment, or water quality. Water right applicants will be given an opportunity to modify their projects and amend their applications to protect these uses.

Has more water been appropriated than is available?

Since 1914, the allocation of water is made through the appropriative water right program administered by the State Water Board’s Division of Water Rights. New water right permits are granted only where there is a reasonable likelihood that water is available in the given watershed. This is not a guarantee that water will always be available during the authorized period of diversion.

The Division’s water availability analysis considers the water needs of both instream beneficial uses and senior right holders. California has a highly variable climate, with periods of drought as well as years of abundant precipitation. The appropriative water rights system is built on the premise that water may not be available in all years. Permits recognize that water may only be available in the wettest years and that more recent permitted rights must be curtailed if conditions are dry and senior water rights holders will not get their allocated water. This is consistent with the State Constitutional policy to maximize the beneficial use of water in the State.

Therefore, the aggregate face value of all the water rights in the state (excluding non-consumptive hydroelectric projects) is likely greater than the average amount of water actually available. This does not mean that more water is used then is available. The complexity of water right data requires analysis be conducted based on water right holder seniority and by diversion in watersheds to get a complete picture of water supply and use. The following factors contribute to this complexity:

  • Reservoirs carryover storage from year to year: Permits for storage are normally based on the capacity of the reservoir. However, large reservoirs are generally not emptied and refilled each year. Therefore, the face value of storage rights (total storage amount) represents more water than is actually taken from the stream system in any given year.
  • Water rights are sometimes “stacked” on top of each other: The “stacked” rights may include several irrigation rights serving the same area with no combined limit, or two rights covering a single reservoir (both consumptive and non-consumptive). The actual use of multiple rights would be limited to a single use or storage amount.
  • Unperfected water rights: Permits are unperfected water rights which may be reduced at licensing. Large application filings, including those held by the State of California, represent unperfected rights with water limits allocations held in reserve until a party is granted assignment. The gross face value of these unperfected permits represents more water than may have ever been historically diverted. Permits represent two-thirds of the entire water volume contained in appropriative rights issued by the state. When a permitted water development project is completed, the Division conducts an inspection and issues a license that confirms the right to appropriate the amount of water actually applied to beneficial use. The amount of water allocated to permitted rights may be reduced as a result of the licensing process.
  • Seasonality of water rights: Various water rights are authorized to divert during different parts of the year, reducing the immediate impacts of the diversions on stream systems. Many new water rights are limited to diversion only during winter months, when stream flows are highest.
  • Water may be used again and again. Normally, water diverted for non-consumptive purposes, such as hydroelectric power generation, is returned to the stream and available for downstream use. Similarly, some of the water diverted for irrigation or other consumptive uses may be returned to the stream as runoff, reducing the net impact to the stream. Face value amounts also include conveyance losses such as percolation and surface runoff, which is not consumed by the water right holder, but may be used by other water right holders. Face value amounts also may not take into account terms requiring bypass of water for downstream senior rights or instream beneficial uses.
  • Limitations of available data: In the past, reports on water use did not require quantifying use. Beginning in 2009, appropriative water right holders were required to quantify diversions before submitting reports, though right holders may still estimate diversions. Similarly, as of 2012, riparian and pre-1914 water right holders are required to both measure and report diversion amounts. The recent improvements in reporting requirements allow the Division of Water Rights to better assess actual diversions. Even with the improved data, diverters may incorrectly report full water use or redundantly report a single diversion under multiple water rights.

What information and conditions will my water right permit contain?

  • The owner of the permit and the owner's address;
  • The location of the point of diversion, including the county where the diversion occurs;
  • The name of the watercourse from which the permit authorizes diversion and the watercourses to which the supply stream is tributary;
  • The season (including a beginning date and an ending date) during which diversion of water may occur;
  • the amount of water that may be diverted;
  • the purpose for which the water can be used;
  • The place where the water can be used;
  • The development schedule for the project;
  • All mandatory permit conditions, including conditions to protect prior vested water rights and conditions to protect the public trust, unless it is infeasible to do so;
  • Conditions to mitigate for significant environmental impact, unless there are overriding reasons why significant environmental impacts should be allowed to occur.

What happens after I get a water right permit?

  • You will be required to develop your project on a schedule specified in your permit.
  • You will be required to comply with all conditions of your permit, to pay annual water right fees, and to report annually on your progress in completing your project and on the amount of water that you have used.

What should I do if I have an illegal water diversion project, but I don't want to get a permit?

  • Stop diverting and using water. The law provides for penalties if a threat of illegal diversion exists. In order to avoid a threat, you should take action to make sure that you make your system incapable of diverting water. Such action may range from simple (removing a pump or severing and capping a supply line, for example), to moderately difficult (lowering a spillway to the streambed or welding an outlet pipe valve open) to very difficult (removing a dam).
  • You may be required to obtain permits from other agencies to remove some projects. A general list of agencies with responsibility over water projects and brief description of when those agencies may require a permit is provided above.
  • You may be able to purchase water from a legal water user. The Division of Water Rights staff may be aware of other legal water users from whom you can obtain either water or a secondary authority to divert water.

Are water right permits and licenses a matter of public record?


How can I get a copy of a water right permit or license?

  • You may get a copy of some water right permits and licenses on our Website.
    • If you know the water right application or license number, you can search and download from our Website.
    • If you do not know the water right application or license number, you can use eWRIMS to find it.
  • You may also get a copy of any public record in the Division of Water Rights by contacting us. You will have to pay for any copying costs.

What should I do if I think someone is illegally taking water?

The State Water Board’s Division of Water Rights relies on the public to help identify illegal diversions of water and violations of water right permit and license conditions. The Division of Water Rights will accept water right “tips” that can be submitted by completing a complaint form on the Cal EPA website. “Tips” may or may not be pursued based on the availability of staff and the significance of the situation in comparison to the needs of the State as a whole.

Will the Division of Water Rights accept complaints involving matters other than illegal diversions of water or permit or license condition violations?

The State Water Board has a duty to protect the public trust and to prevent the waste and unreasonable use of water, including unreasonable methods of diverting water. However, the Division of Water Rights cannot investigate all complaints. The Division will determine whether to conduct investigations of complaints based mostly on the potential harm to the public or environment.

The State Water Board has jurisdiction over waste and unreasonable use of water and potential impact to pubic trust resources of the State, regardless of the type of water right being exercised. However, the State Water Board does not have resources to investigate complaints where the parties appear to have valid but competing percolating groundwater, riparian, and/or pre-1914 appropriative claims of right. Disputes involving this type of situation should be resolved by a court. The court may refer the matter to the State Water Board for findings of fact or of law. If this happens, the parties will be required to pay the cost of the State Water Board's investigation. If the parties do not agree to pay the State Water Board's costs, the State Water Board can refuse the court's referral.

“Tips” can be submitted by completing a complaint form on the Cal EPA website. Questions regarding the Division of Water Rights' authority over unauthorized diversions, waste and unreasonable use of water, or potential impacts to public trust, may be submitted by calling (916) 341-5300.

What should I do if I have a permit or license, but my project is different from the project my permit or license describes?

You should contact the Division of Water Rights. You cannot divert and use water except as authorized by your permit or license. You must revise your project so that it complies with your permit or license.

You may seek permission from the State Water Board to modify your permit or license. If so, you must file a petition for change or, if you want to modify the development schedule authorized in your permit, or a petition for extension of time. A fee is required to be filed with a petition for change or extension of time. The current fee schedule is available on our Website. If it is obvious that your permit or license contains an error (for example, if your application correctly identifies the point of water diversion, but your permit has a different point listed) we may administratively correct the permit or license without a petition being filed.

What happens if I file a petition for change or a petition for extension of time?

Before approving any change petition, the State Water Board must find that the change will not injure any legal water user (including any water right holders who are junior in priority and any one who contracts with a legal water user) and that the change will not harm fish or wildlife.

The law requires that water supply projects be diligently constructed and used. Before approving a petition for time extension, the State Water Board must determine that good cause exists to approve the time extension. We will review the petition to determine whether we can make this finding. Good cause does not normally exist if the project was not developed because of a lack of financing or for other reasons that involve the water right holder, rather than the project.

If a petitioned change or time extension has the potential to impact other water users or the environment, we will tell those who have requested notification about the petition. The petitioner is required to notify the Department of Fish and Wildlife of the proposed change. Other water right holders and the public will be allowed to object to the proposed change by filing a protest form with the State Water Board. Because the State Water Board has discretion over whether or not to approve the requested petition, we must comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) before approving the change or extension petition.

The petitioner generally will be required to hire a consultant to prepare any environmental document required by CEQA, to pay for the cost of preparing the document, and to provide enough information to allow the State Water Board to make the required findings. Before we can approve the petition, all protests must be resolved, either through negotiation or by the State Water Board following an investigation or hearing, depending on how much water is involved.

How long will it take to get my petition for change or extension approved?

It depends on the change or time extension you are requesting. If the change is minor, it could take three months. If the change is major or controversial, it will take longer. The most controversial changes can take as long as 10 years to process, but most don't take that long.

I pump groundwater and don’t think I need a water right permit. What other rules apply to me?

If you live in Ventura, Riverside, Los Angeles, or San Bernardino counties, and you extract 25 acre-feet or more of groundwater annually, you are required to file an annual notice of your groundwater use with either the State Water Board or a local groundwater agency. There is a fee associated with filing your annual notice.

If you live in a groundwater basin that has been designated as probationary by the State Water Board and you extract more than two acre-feet of groundwater annually, you are required to report your extractions annually online through the Board's online, Groundwater Extraction Annual Reporting System (GEARS), and pay associated fees unless exempt.

Please contact the State Water Board at SGMA@waterboards.ca.gov or check the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) website for assistance in determining whether you should report your extractions to the State Water Board or local Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA).

Does storage of rainwater harvested from rooftops require a water right permit?

No. Water Code section 10574 provides that rainwater harvesting from rooftops does not require a water right permit. The State Water Board encourages methods of water collection or diversion, such as rooftop rainwater harvest, that reduce demand on streams and reduce water quality problems associated with stormwater runoff.

How do I register my water use for small domestic, livestock stockpond or small irrigation purposes?

You can review the program by visiting this web site or by contacting the Division of Water Rights. The process for submitting your registration form to the Division of Water Rights is described on the first page of the registration form and in the process guide located at the end of the form.

I completed my project and the “complete use” (or construction and use) date expired. What happens next?

Water Code section 1605 requires the State Water Board to conduct a water right licensing inspection of the works constructed and the use of water as soon as practicable after receiving notification that a permitted project is complete and ready for licensing. When possible, staff from the Division of Water Rights (Division) will schedule and conduct an inspection of the project, which includes (1) taking measurements to determine the establishment of the permit’s beneficial use of water and (2) confirming compliance with all permit terms and conditions. If appropriate, an offer for final licenses will be made and if accepted by the permittee, the Division will issue a license. The license is recorded in the County Recorder’s Office and is the final confirmation of the water right and remains effective as long as its conditions are fulfilled and beneficial use continues.

From the date that the project is permitted, permittees should keep records of the following to assist in the final licensing process, if applicable:

  1. Amount of water diverted or used (acre-feet, cubic feet per second, gallons per day) at the smallest time interval possible (daily, weekly or monthly)
  2. Reservoir water surface elevation changes during collection and use seasons
  3. Annual acres irrigated and crop type
  4. Irrigation schedule(s)
  5. Frost and Heat protection hours and acreage protected (acres), dates and times
  6. Nature of Industrial use
  7. Number and type of animals for Stock watering use
  8. Approximate population and delivery amounts for Municipal use
  9. Number of persons, area of garden, lawn, etc used for Domestic use
  10. Installed capacity for Power generation and daily diversions (KW, MW or hp)
  11. Types of Recreational or Wildlife Enhancement uses such as boating, fishing, or wildlife use
  12. Water conserved (acre-feet)
  13. Water reclaimed (acre-feet)
  14. Water conjunctively used (acre-feet)
  15. Staff gauges and measuring devices installation dates

Due to limited resources, the Division may be unable to promptly inspect all projects reported ready for licensing. Division staff will contact the Permittee when the project is scheduled for inspection. To expedite the licensing of water rights with reservoirs, the Division has set up an alternate process. If a permit authorizes diversion of water to a reservoir, the Permittee may retain a licensed land surveyor or civil engineer to (1) survey the reservoir and submit the certified survey to the Division with a request for a license inspection and (2) submit records of diversion or calculations of beneficial use of water under the permit. Whenever possible, the Division will prioritize its field inspections based on the date that the survey and diversion/use information is submitted to the Division.

I am fallowing my land this year. Where can I obtain information about water transfers?

You may obtain information about water transfers here.

How do I contact the Division of Water Rights?

  • Call: (916)341-5300
  • Fax: (916)341-5400
  • E-mail: dwr@waterboards.ca.gov
  • Mailing:
    State Water Resources Control Board
    Division of Water Rights
    PO Box 2000
    Sacramento, CA 95812-2000