Frequently Asked Questions: Water Rights Applications: Permitting and Licensing
In addition to the Frequently Asked Questions listed below, the Division of Water Rights maintains a Frequently Asked Questions Portal.
If you have questions after reviewing the answers on this webpage, you may contact the Division of Water Rights at (916) 341-5300.
What is the difference between a permit and a 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 know if I have a 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 theeWRIMS 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 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 diverted under permits and licenses can be used. That information will be added to the system as our resources allow.
How do I know if I need a permit?
If you already have a water right, you do not need to apply for a permit if the diversion and use is within the scope of your right.
California water law distinguishes between surface water and groundwater. Rights to groundwater do not require a permit or license from the Board with the exception of "subterranean streams flowing in known and definite channels." Acquisition of a new right to extract groundwater flowing in a subterranean stream requires a permit or license from the Board. If you use groundwater on land that is over the groundwater basin from which you took the water, you may have an "overlying groundwater right." If you use the water somewhere else, you may have an "appropriative groundwater right." Overlying groundwater rights have a higher priority than appropriative groundwater rights. The State Water Board does not 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.
California recognizes several different types of rights to take and use surface water. Some water rights can only be held by government entities. These include pueblo rights, which can only be held by municipalities that were originally Mexican or Spanish pueblos, and federal and tribal reserved rights, which can only be held by the federal government or Indian tribes.
Individuals can hold riparian water rights or appropriative water rights to surface water. If you began using surface water or groundwater from a subterranean stream after 1914, when the State Water Commission Act was enacted, you must apply for and receive approval from the State Water Board before using water unless you have a riparian right. If the state approves your application, you will receive a water right permit. The permit allows you to develop your water supply project and to take and use water. After you have developed your project and used the water, the State Water Board will determine how much water you beneficially used and may issue you a license. You can click here to see a flowchart of the water right permitting process.
What benefit to I enjoy as a result of getting a permit or license?
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.
The use of water without a water right is a trespass against the State of California and can lead to fines. If you are using water illegally, you can be required to stop taking and using water.
How do I get a permit?
- File a fully completed Application to Appropriate Water by Permit with the Division of Water Rights.
- Pay all required fees.
- Provide sufficient information to allow the State Water Board to determine that water is available for your proposed project.
- Provide information to show that your proposed project would not deprive anyone who has a higher priority right of the use of water under that right.
- Provide information to show that your proposed project will not harm public trust resources (such as fish, recreation, and navigation uses) where it is feasible to protect those resources.
- Provide information to 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).
For more information, please visit our Permitting and Licensing section here.
Are there any projects for which an application would not be accepted?
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.
The Division of Water Rights will not accept an application 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.
The Division of Water Rights will not accept an application 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.
How long does it take to process an application?
That depends on your project. We must comply with Water Code requirements to provide others with information about your project and allow them an opportunity to protest the application. We must also comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which involves a public process. The process to comply with CEQA 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 your application for 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 of 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 submit and maintain an application?
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 California 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 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 Game 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.
Do I need other permits or approvals?
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 or 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.
- A Streambed Alternation Agreement from the California Department of Fish and Game (to ensure that any construction activity that occurs in a streambed does not harm fish or wildlife).
- A "take" permit from the California Department of Fish and Game under the California Endangered Species Act (if your project has the potential to harm a State-protected species).
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 an application would be denied?
The Division of Water Rights will not issue a permit:
- If there is no 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.
What happens after I get a 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. You should review your permit carefully, for conditions requiring compliance before making diversion of water. Often, these terms involve installation of measuring devices for satisfying bypass flow conditions of the permit. Initiating or continued diversions before full compliance may be subject to enforcement.
I completed the project described in my permit 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 confirm the beneficial use of water and (2) confirming compliance with all permit terms and conditions. If appropriate, an offer of a license 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 reasonable 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:
- 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).
- Reservoir water surface elevation changes during collection and use seasons.
- Annual acres irrigated and crop type.
- Irrigation schedule(s).
- Frost and Heat protection hours and acreage protected (acres), dates and times.
- Nature of Industrial use.
- Number and type of animals for Stock watering use.
- Approximate population and delivery amounts for Municipal use.
- Number of persons, area of garden, lawn, etc. used for Domestic use.
- Installed capacity for Power generation and daily diversions (KW, MW or hp).
- Types of Recreational or Wildlife Enhancement uses such as boating, fishing, or wildlife use.
- Water conserved (acre-feet) Water reclaimed (acre-feet)
- Water conjunctively used (acre-feet)
- Staff gauges and measuring device 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.
What information and conditions will my permit or license 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 or license 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 (permit only).
- All mandatory permit or license 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 impacts, unless there are overriding reasons why significant environmental impacts should be allowed to occur.
- Conditions to install and maintain adequate measuring devices and requirements to annually report your diversion and use of water to the Board via an online reporting system.
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, 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 administrat ively correct the permit or license without a petition being filed.
Are permits and licenses a matter of public record?
How can I obtain a copy of a permit or license?
You may get a copy of some water right permits and licenses on our website by using our eWRIMS Database.
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.
How do I get a temporary permit?
Determine your proposed point of diversion, place of use, and purpose of use; complete an Application to Appropriate Water; and mail the completed application to the State Water Resources Control Board's Division of Water Rights at PO Box 2000, Sacramento, CA 95812-2000. If you are facing an imminent threat to public health due to drought, notify staff by writing a note at the top of your application form: "Imminent threat to public health."
How much will it cost to process my application?
The cost to apply for a temporary water right permit varies depending on the amount of water being diverted. Initial filing fees typically start at $2,000. Filing fees may change so please refer to Division of Water Rights Fee Schedule for more information. Certain temporary permits to divert high flows to underground storage during Fiscal Year 2015-2016 may be subject to different fees.
How long does it take to process my application?
The State Water Board will make every effort to process temporary permit applications as quickly and efficiently as possible. Processing time will vary by the complexity of the request, the completeness and accuracy of information provided in the application package, and the potential for adverse effects on other water users and public trust resources such as fish and wildlife.
What is needed in order to issue a permit?
The State Water Board must be able to make the following findings in order to issue a temporary water right permit: (i) the applicant has an urgent need for the water proposed to be diverted and used; (ii) the water may be diverted and used without injury to any lawful water user; (iii) the water may be diverted and used without unreasonable effect on fish, wildlife, or other instream resources, and (iv) the proposed diversion and use are in the public interest. An applicant should submit evidence to support the above findings, including permit conditions to ensure that the water is diverted and used in the public interest, without injury to any lawful user of water, and without unreasonable effect upon fish, wildlife, and other instream beneficial uses.
What if I have questions?
If you would like to discuss your particular situation with a staff person who works in your geographic area, see the permitting and licensing staff contact information provided here.
Am I ready for a license?
Water right permits issued by the State Water Board specify a development schedule to complete construction and beneficial use of water. When that development schedule elapses, a permittee should either: (1) request revocation of the permit if the project has been abandoned or cannot be diligently completed due to personal or financial reasons; (2) petition for an extension of time to extend the development schedule if the construction and use of water under the permit has been diligently pursued and additional time is necessary to complete full anticipated beneficial use of water; or, (3) notify the State Water Board that the permitted project is complete and ready for licensing. Note: A license can only be issued for the amount of water that has been placed to beneficial use during the authorized period and in compliance with all terms and conditions of the permit. Prior to the end of the permitted development schedule, a project may be ready for a water right license if construction and full beneficial use under the water right permit has been completed. If you hold multiple water rights for the same facility or entity, it is possible that the most senior water right (oldest filing date) may be ready for a license even if the more junior water right is not yet ready. If you believe you are ready for license, make sure you check the appropriate box on your annual progress report by permittee.
What is included in a license?
Using the permit conditions, calculations, conclusions from field data and measurements, the Division's records and pre-licensing submittals, the Division prepares a draft license. The license reflects actual use of water in terms of source, amount, season, place of use, point(s) of diversion, and purpose(s) of use, by direct diversion and/or storage. The Division determines the amount of water beneficially used after taking the limitations of the right into consideration. When the Division licenses projects with multiple water rights, the Division examines each water right individually since every water right has a specific priority relative to every other water right. If water from a reservoir with more than one right can be used only under one of the rights, the Division credits the use to that right. If it can be used under more than one of the rights, the Division credits the use first to the extent of the senior right and remaining excess use to the junior right. Licensing of multiple water right projects is also complicated by the individual projects' uses, seasons, diversion methods, and amounts, including amounts combined with other associated water rights.
What is the time period for determining maximum use?
The Division usually uses either the initial permit's development schedule or the most recent development schedule authorized by the most recent time extension.
My permit development schedule has elapsed. What does that mean?
When a permit development schedule has elapsed, no further development of water use may occur. The permittee is limited to the maximum annual quantity put to use during the permit development schedule and any previous extensions approved by the Division.
My permit development schedule has elapsed, but the project was never built. What are my options?
A license cannot be issued if the project was not built. The permittee should either submit a request for revocation or petition for an extension of time. Please note that time extension petitions are only approved when specific criteria are met. (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 23, § 844.)
My permit development schedule has elapsed, but only some of the project features were built or full beneficial use of water has not been completed. What are my options?
A license can be issued for the project features that were built and the amount of water put to beneficial use. The remaining unused portion of the water right will be lost. If the remaining project features will be built later and/or the permittee wants more time to complete full beneficial use, a license should not be requested. A petition for extension of time should be filed.
The project has been completed, but it was completed after the permit development schedule had elapsed. Does any additional water use beyond the end of the development schedule count towards licensing?
For some permittees, maximum beneficial use occurred prior to the request for a license, but after the end of the permit development schedule. In that case, permittees should file a petition for extension of time, but only to cover the period between the end of the beneficial use period in the permit and the date of full beneficial use. A license can be offered once the petition has been approved. A petition for extension of time can be processed concurrently with the licensing of a project.