Groundwater Recharge Permitting - Frequently Asked Questions

General Groundwater Recharge Permitting

Groundwater recharge is the augmentation of groundwater, by natural or artificial means, with surface water or recycled water. Some groundwater recharge projects may use short-term water surpluses that occur only infrequently.

Groundwater recharge is not a beneficial use of water. A diversion to underground storage is one method of diverting and storing water that takes advantage of the natural storage capacity of aquifers. To obtain a water right for diversion to underground storage, the applicant must identify a subsequent beneficial use of the water. Groundwater storage projects have been successfully constructed and are operating in California with diversion to underground storage being the method of diversion. Those projects that divert water authorized by an appropriative water right require use of the stored water for beneficial use, just as with above-ground surface water storage projects. The beneficial use ordinarily involves extraction of the stored water before putting the water to use, but beneficial use may also occur in place, such as leaving the water underground to protect water quality by preventing saline water intrusion.

You will need a water right if you intend to capture stream flows, including peak storm events, for groundwater recharge and later beneficial use. Except where the storage and beneficial use are authorized under an existing appropriative right, or a change in an existing right, this will require filing an application with the State Water Resources Control Board to obtain a water right permit. In the water right application, you will need to specify the beneficial uses of the water diverted to underground storage. This may include one or a combination of consumptive and in-situ beneficial uses. Examples of consumptive use that involve extraction of the stored water, by the diverter or other parties on the behalf of the diverter, include municipal, irrigation, and industrial. Examples of “in-situ” uses where the water is used in place and cannot be extracted by others include: Water Quality (such as repelling salinity/seawater intrusion); Fish and Wildlife Preservation & Enhancement (such as supporting nearby stream baseflow for fisheries or enhancing groundwater dependent ecosystems for the benefit of fish and wildlife); or Other uses (per Cal. Code Regs Title 23 §659 when sufficiently documented for an individual application) such as mitigating land subsidence; supporting groundwater dependent ecosystems not related to fish and wildlife, such as to wet the root zone; or protecting or enhancing groundwater levels so that basin residents using private domestic wells or small community water systems have access to water.

Water cannot be stored underground under a riparian water right. A riparian right is a right to use the natural flow of water on riparian land, but riparian rights do not authorize storage during a wet time for use during a drier time (e.g., from season to season), as occurs with groundwater recharge. More information on riparian rights can be found on the Division of Water Rights' Frequently Asked Questions page.

In some cases, you may be able to use an existing, post-1914 appropriative right for groundwater storage. However, a change petition for the permit or license is required, and you must receive approval from the State Water Board before storing water underground.

  • Flood Control. Projects designed and used solely for flood protection and not for beneficial use; where capture of flood waters is necessary to protect health and safety, and there is no intent to store the water for later beneficial use by any party. The water may be held no longer than needed for flood control and no right may be asserted to any of the groundwater recharge that results from the flood control.
  • Recycled Water. Projects that propose to replenish groundwater with recycled water, where the recycled water comes directly from a water treatment plant and is not conveyed using a surface water stream system or a subterranean stream. In this situation, a wastewater change petition may be necessary if the wastewater was previously discharged to a stream.
    For more information about using recycled water for groundwater recharge please visit our wastewater change petition page, the Division of Drinking Water's Recycled Water Information webpage and the Department of Water Resource's Water Recycling webpage.
  • Pre-1914 Rights. Projects diverting water under a valid pre-1914 appropriative right, as long as the change does not cause injury to other water users or result in waste or unreasonable use. Changes to pre-1914 rights do not require approval from the State Water Board.
  • Contract Water. Projects that use water delivered under a water supply contract or purchase agreement in which the water purveyor delivering the water has a right to divert water to underground storage at the proposed location.

The type of application you submit will depend on how long you plan to operate your project and how urgently you need the water. Detailed descriptions of the two types of permit can be found on the Water Rights for Groundwater Recharge webpage.

  • Temporary permits may be appropriate for short-term or infrequent diversions where an urgent need exists.  Temporary permits expire within 180 days after the date of issuance, unless an earlier date is specified or the temporary permit has been revoked.  Temporary permits can usually be processed more quickly than standard permits and may be renewed by the State Water Board.  A temporary permit is subject to change or revocation at any time.
  • Standard permits are appropriate for long-term projects or projects where no urgent need exists.  Standard permits can take several years to issue, but they secure a priority date for the diversion.
Assuming there is an urgent need, an application for a temporary permit may be filed simultaneously with an application for a standard permit, to cover the period until a standard permit is issued.  Both types of permits require detailed reporting of the amount of water diverted into underground storage, and the amount removed for beneficial use.

You can apply for a temporary permit by submitting an Application Form, an Underground Storage Supplement Form, necessary fees, and other required information to the Division of Water Rights.  The application will describe the proposed source of water, place of use, purposes of use, points of diversion and quantity to be diverted.

Visit our temporary underground storage permit page to learn more about the application process and associated fees.

The undesirable results identified in SGMA may be identified as purposes of use in many, but not all cases. The Purposes of Use for Underground Storage Fact Sheet describes the undesirable results and provides additional clarification as to when and how each result may be identified as a purpose of use in an application. To provide additional information to prospective applicants, the Division will post examples of applications for these purposes of use upon acceptance.

The table below will include a selection of accepted standard applications for groundwater recharge (underground storage) with purposes of use that overlap with the SGMA undesirable results.

To obtain and maintain a water rights permit or license, you must demonstrate beneficial use of the water diverted (e.g., household domestic use, irrigation of agricultural land, municipal use). The type of accounting necessary to quantify the beneficial use of water held in underground storage will depend on the size and complexity of the project, characteristics of the aquifer, and whether the groundwater storage and recharge occurs under a temporary or standard permit.

Groundwater pumping records within the designated place of use are often the most straightforward way to demonstrate beneficial use of water previously diverted to underground storage. Estimates of crop water use, groundwater modeling, or other approaches may be acceptable in some situations. In adjudicated basins or areas subject to a Groundwater Sustainability Plan under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, permittees may be able to rely on groundwater accounting systems developed by the basin's watermaster or Groundwater Sustainability Agency.


Streamlined Groundwater Recharge Permitting

PERMITTING PROCESS

The Division of Water Rights has developed a streamlined permitting process for diversions of water from high flow events to underground storage. The streamlined permitting process was developed in response to the recent California drought, the need for California to better prepare for changes in hydrology related to climate change, the state’s growing population, and to provide greater flexibility for conjunctive use. In particular, the streamlined permitting process targets diversion of high flow (e.g., flood) events during the winter, which will help address long-term concerns over water availability. The streamlined process will directly assist groundwater sustainability agencies (GSAs) and other local agencies working to address adverse impacts caused by the extraction of groundwater and to better manage their groundwater basins under the requirements of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA). The process applies to water right applications that are unlikely to injure other legal users of water, unlikely to adversely affect fishery resources, or unlikely to adversely affect other public trust resources, because the diversions are limited to a portion of peak flows during winter months when stream flows are highest.

The streamlined permitting process consists of an administrative adjustment in priorities and process. No statutory or regulatory changes are necessary to implement the streamlined permitting process, except for an adjustment (lowering) of the associated fee schedule. Eligibility for the streamlined permitting process is assessed by the Division of Water Rights, based on criteria described below.

The most common delays in processing a water right application are related to completion of environmental impact assessments required under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), uncertainty regarding whether water is available for appropriation, and public protest related to potential effects on fish, wildlife, or other senior water right holders. The streamlined process is only applicable to a subset of projects that divert high flow events during the winter. Furthermore, the streamlined approach would only apply to projects that are able and willing to accept terms and conditions to their right that should either eliminate or minimize the effect of the diversion on fish, wildlife, and senior water right holders. The same procedural steps apply to processing an application and issuing a water right, but eligible projects are likely to proceed through these steps more quickly and will be given a higher priority for processing. Additional information is available on the Application webpage.

Yes. All current laws, regulations, and policies apply to both the standard and streamlined water right permitting processes. There are no statutory or regulatory changes proposed by the Division. The applicant must complete a CEQA document, and the application will be publicly noticed similarly to any other water right application. The streamlined permitting process is only available for applications that are likely to avoid typical obstacles to permit issuance and applies an administrative adjustment to prioritize those applications. The applicant must accept a number of permit terms and conditions that will ensure the new diversions are not causing injury to others or the environment.

Yes – the application filing fees and the permit and license annual fees are lower for streamlined permitting projects. On September 18, 2019 the State Water Board adopted a fee structure that includes a reduced application filing fee and annual fee for water rights issued pursuant to the streamlined permitting process. The reduced fees will go into effect in late 2019 or early 2020. Parties who apply prior to any specialized fee structure going into effect should expect to pay the existing standard application filing fee.

The state legislature enacted SGMA to address widespread overdraft and other undesirable results caused by groundwater conditions in California’s groundwater basins. SGMA requires Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) or local agencies in high and medium priority basins to develop plans to address these undesirable results. The plans must achieve sustainability in the basin within 20 years of implementation. For critically over-drafted basins, the deadline for achieving sustainability is 2040. For the remaining high and medium priority basins, the deadline for achieving sustainability is 2042.

Groundwater recharge is likely to be an important part of achieving sustainability in groundwater basins, but GSAs or local public agencies may lack the water rights to divert and use that water later. The streamlined permitting process for diversion of high flows to underground storage was developed, in part, to assist GSAs or local public agencies to obtain necessary water rights. Those water rights will, in turn, help GSAs or local agencies reach their sustainability goals more quickly.

We advise that before embarking on a pathway to obtain recharge water, you identify all possible pathways for securing a water source and weigh the pros and cons of each option. The following are options for obtaining a source of water to use for underground storage, and questions to explore as you decide how to proceed with your project.

  1. Contract water:
    Are you an existing contractor of a party with a water supply? If so, does the supplier have additional water for you to purchase?
    If you are not an existing customer, is there any party that could operationally supply you water? If so, would they entertain having you become a contractor?
  2. Recycled water:
    Do you operate a wastewater treatment plant?  If yes, have you evaluated if you can recycle some of the water you currently discharge and use instead for recharge?
    If you do not operate a wastewater treatment plant, is there someone that could operationally supply you with such water? As with #1, you might be able to become a customer of an entity providing recycled water.
  3. Existing pre-1914 appropriative water rights, including possible changes under Water Code 1706:
    Do you hold a pre-1914 claim or right that could be re-purposed (assuming need for recharge is higher than historic need for diversion) while maintaining the established season of diversion, diversion quantity and rate seasonality pattern?
  4. Existing post–1914 appropriative water rights (e.g. permit or license), including possible changes under Water Code 1700:
    Do you hold a permit or license that you could change?
    Could you purchase water through a water right transfer of a party who holds a permit or license?
  5. New post-1914 appropriation (e.g. application for permit):
    Are you proposing diversion from a watershed/stream that is on the Fully Appropriated Streams (FAS) List?  If yes, you will need to petition to open FAS before an application can be accepted. Please note much of the Tulare Lake Basin has been designated as FAS. The Kings River has been designated as fully appropriated year round and is currently involved in the FAS petition process. The Kern River completed the FAS petition process. In response, multiple parties have filed applications and are in the application acceptance stage of processing. For more information on the Kings River FAS petition, visit the Kings River FAS website. For more information on the FAS proceeding for the Kern River, visit the Kern River FAS website.
    Is your project viable given the availability and frequency of unappropriated high flows in the watershed (see WAA guidance)? If yes, you may want to consider the streamlined pathway. Prospective applicants for the streamlined pathway should note that applications cannot increase the requested amount or season of diversion after filing with the Division (Cal. Code Regs. § 699). Applicants are encouraged to carefully design proposed projects considering both their water needs and the criteria identified below. If no, you may want to consider the standard/non-streamlined pathway.

ELIGIBILITY

Applications that meet the following criteria are eligible for streamlined permitting. These criteria describe applications that are likely to avoid delays in the permitting process.

  1. The applicant proposes diversions during high flow events between December 1 and March 31 with a minimum bypass or diversions in accordance with flood control operations, as follows:
    1. Diversions during high flows with bypass –
      1. Streamflow at the point of diversion is above the 90th percentile, calculated on a daily basis from the gage data during the period-of-record;
      2. The diversion rate is limited to 20% of the total streamflow; and
    2. Diversions only when flows in the source waterbody at or near the point of diversion exceed thresholds that trigger flood control actions necessary to mitigate threats to human health or safety, according to established written flood management protocols adopted by a flood control agency.
  2. The application includes the information required by Water Code section1260 and the Underground Storage Supplement to the Application to Appropriate Water by Permit
  3. The application is submitted by a Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA) or local agency as defined by the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA).
  4. The application proposes to divert water to underground storage in a groundwater basin identified in Bulletin 118.
  5. The applicant has completed any environmental documents required under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

An application that meets some but not all of these criteria is still likely to be processed more quickly than applications that do not meet any of these criteria. Applications that incorporate a substantial portion of the criteria may also be administratively prioritized for processing over those that incorporate few to none of the criteria, depending on staff availability.

The Water Code allows any person, including corporations, local agencies, and other types of legal entities, to file a water right application, including applications for diversion to underground storage. However, one of the criteria for streamlined permitting is the submission of the application by or in partnership with a Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA) or other local public agency that has water supply, water management, or land use responsibilities within a groundwater basin. First, applications submitted by local public agencies often require less processing as compared to those submitted by private parties because the local public agency has conducted the necessary environmental review under CEQA. Second, applications submitted in partnership with a GSA are more likely to include measurement and accounting methods that are consistent with a groundwater sustainability plan (GSP) or other groundwater management plan. Finally, groundwater management projects undertaken by local agencies are a priority for the Division to support SGMA implementation.

A “general” or “umbrella” permitting, as the term is used here, refers to a permit that allows multiple points of diversion all within the same water right. Umbrella water rights provide greater flexibility by maximizing the area where groundwater can be recharged, without having to obtain a new water right at each single point of diversion. An “umbrella” water right option has historically been used for rights issued to large irrigation districts or water purveyors and may, for example, include multiple points of diversion, multiple places of infiltration, and a proposed place of use that includes much or all of the jurisdictional area of the local agency.

By obtaining an umbrella water right, the local agency can manage the diversion, storage, and extraction of water on a landowner-by-landowner basis from one high flow event to the next, or from one year to the next. Consolidating individual operations under an umbrella water right that is held by a local groundwater management agency will create a more efficient permitting, reporting, gaging and measurement, and compliance process. Operation of these projects pursuant to an umbrella water right, with a single priority date, will greatly simplify accounting needs for purposes of administering the water rights priority system.

The State Water Board’s Declaration of Fully Appropriated Stream Systems (Order WR 98-08) designates stream systems where the Board has determined there is no water remaining for appropriation. Fully Appropriated Streams (FAS) can be designated either year-round or during specified months of the year. Generally, the Board does not accept water right applications for diversion from a FAS. In stream systems that are declared “fully appropriated” for only a portion of the year, water may be appropriated during the non-FAS months of the year.

However, there is a process by which a water right applicant can ask the Board to revise its FAS determination. Permit applicants can submit a petition to the Board to open the FAS designation for a water body. A petition requesting to open a FAS determination requires a separate fee (currently $10,000) and must include hydrology data, stream flow data, or other pertinent information to support the claim that unappropriated water is present in the system. The process of reviewing and acting upon a petition to revise or revoke a FAS determination typically takes several years to complete and must occur before permit application processing commences.


GENERAL TECHNICAL CONSIDERATIONS

The streamlined WAA methodology is different primarily due to a reliance on either two specified thresholds or triggers in established written flood management protocols rather than an analysis that often requires highly site-specific information and detailed technical investigation.

The two thresholds are 1) that daily flows above the 90th percentile are unappropriated during the winter period and 2) that limiting total diversions to 20 percent of flow will not cause unreasonable impacts on fish and wildlife. The methodology associated with these two thresholds requires the applicant to compile data from the gage or gages most representative of flows at the point of diversion and compare the 90th percentile flows at this gage against calculated downstream demands. If the 90th percentile flows exceed downstream demands, additional information from the applicant will not generally be required to demonstrate water availability. For most United States Geological Survey (USGS)-published gages, the National Water Information System (NWIS) Surface Water Daily Statistics tool can retrieve the 90th percentile mean daily streamflow (P90 streamflow) for each day of the year and no calculation is required. For non-USGS gages, P90 mean daily streamflow may be calculated. Total calculated demands downstream will be a combination senior diversion demand and existing environmental instream flow requirements. Statewide information on existing instream flow requirements are available on the Division’s Flow Requirement website. Data on demands can be found at the State Water Board’s eWRIMS database.

WAAs relying on triggers established in written flood management protocols will need to assess historic past practices of the flood control agency or historic flooding events to examine whether and how there is unappropriated water available to supply the application.

Additional guidance on WAA methodology is available on the groundwater recharge website.

In general, the highest streamflow and least likelihood of impact to downstream right holders, fish, and ecosystems occurs during the winter months. Typically, there is little irrigation demand during the winter, and at flows greater than the 90th percentile daily flow there should be excess water relative to existing flow requirements (such as the Delta outflow requirements) and demands from senior water right holders. At present, the Division will only consider appropriations between December 1 and March 31 of a water year as eligible for the streamlined process. This diversion season may not encompass peak flows in every watershed, but will cover much of California’s high flow season while allowing for a simplified water availability analysis and expedited processing because of the reduced likelihood of impact to other uses and users.

The Division will not prioritize applications seeking to divert peak flows outside of the December 1 through March 31 timeframe. If peak flows in the source waterbody often occur outside of the period from December 1 to March 31, and the applicant can demonstrate that peak flows during this alternate period are generally greater than the demands of existing users and flows needed for environmental purposes, the application may still be processed more quickly. However, the spring and fall months are typically when flows are necessary to support anadromous fish species and consideration of the impacts of a new diversion may require additional analysis.

Meeting the criteria for streamlined processing is also likely to accelerate the issuance of a temporary permit, assuming that the applicant has a stream gage near their intended point of diversion or is able to install such a gage prior to commencement of the temporary permit. Many of the terms and conditions that would typically be applied to a streamlined permit may also be applicable to a temporary permit.

The California Data Exchange Center, or CDEC, includes many stream gages that do not participate in the USGS NWIS streamflow reporting system, but that may be able to provide estimates of high flow thresholds at your project’s location. While CDEC lacks some of the pre-calculated daily statistics tools that are available on the NWIS, 90th percentile flows can often be ascertained from CDEC station data.  If the stream gage nearest to the diversion location is not an operating USGS gage, you should check whether a CDEC gage may be available.

There may be other telemetered stream flow gages maintained by agencies that do not report stage or streamflow data to USGS or CDEC. The Division will evaluate the suitability of these gages for use on a case-by-case basis. Factors will include whether the gage has data telemetry and internet connectivity and the longevity of gage records. The Division will also evaluate whether that gage data is available to the public following application for a water right permit.

The streamlined WAA methodology relies on calculations of the 90th percentile flows that must be available for a project’s POD. A telemetered stream gage located near the POD will be the means for demonstrating high flows are present, how much of the flow may be diverted by the POD without exceeding the 20% diversion limit, and whether those diversions might affect downstream water needs (for ecosystems or senior right holders). 

Additionally, for projects that have multiple PODs, additional stream gages will increase operational flexibility by demonstrating high flows are present at various points within a watershed, potentially making it easier to divert additional flows while demonstrating that downstream senior rights are not being exercised to their full extent during specific events. See the WAA Guidance for more information.

Groundwater recharge is the enhancement of water levels in groundwater aquifers, by natural or artificial means, with surface water or recycled water. Groundwater recharge is not a beneficial use of water on its own, but rather is one method of diverting and storing water that takes advantage of the natural storage capacity of groundwater aquifers. To obtain a water right to divert water to underground storage, you must identify the eventual beneficial use of the water just as with above-ground surface water storage projects. Please see the Division’s Fact Sheet regarding Purposes of Use for Underground Storage Projects for additional guidance regarding beneficial uses for underground storage projects.

Please see the Division’s Fact Sheet regarding Purposes of Use for Underground Storage Projects for additional guidance on how beneficial uses can be identified for projects proposing to store water underground. Robust accounting methodologies for subbasins or management areas under SGMA may be relied upon to demonstrate beneficial use. Prospective applicants are encouraged to consider methods to model the fate of water transmitted to underground storage in both the project planning and accounting development steps.  As parties pursue applications for various extractive or in situ beneficial uses, the Division will provide the applications as examples to assist others.

Several options are available for accounting for the storage and use of water under the streamlined permitting process. The most appropriate method will likely depend on the type of applicant, the beneficial uses proposed, and whether an existing method of accounting for groundwater stored in the basin is already established by a groundwater sustainability plan, court decree, or other basis for groundwater management.

A simplified accounting method for extractive beneficial uses is last-in-first-out. Pursuant to this method, water that is diverted to storage under the permit is extracted and used prior to reliance on any other basis of right to extract and use water. This method of accounting may avoid the need to calculate storage losses over time and thereby simplify the methodology. Where the end-user of water is not the permit-holder, agreements or regulations must be in place to assure that water stored under the permit is extracted and used before reliance on any other basis of right.

Existing groundwater accounting methods established by a groundwater sustainability plan, court decree, or other type of groundwater management plan may also be relied upon for streamlined processing. Where an existing plan is in place that is sufficiently robust to provide adequate accounting of water storage and use, the Division may require as a term in the permit that water stored and used be accounted for in accordance with the existing methodology. A groundwater sustainability agency that is developing an accounting methodology for management of the basin may want to consider whether the methodology is sufficiently robust to be relied upon for permitting and eventual licensing of rights to divert water to underground storage. Considerations of methods to model the fate of water transmitted to underground storage may also be helpful in developing and/or calibrating an accounting methodology.

Other accounting methodologies may also be used for purposes of permitting but may require additional processing time for development and review.

Right holders are required to complete annual reports to the Division electronically through the Report Management system (RMS) website. Separate annual reports are required for each water right.  Each annual reporting cycle is for a complete calendar year (January 1 to December 31).

The Division has developed an electronic notification system to provide certain general reporting and fee payment reminders to water right holders and claimants.  You may subscribe to the Division’s electronic notification system (select Water Rights and then Water Rights Reporting Notification).

Annual reports must include information regarding compliance with the conditions of your water rights(s) and your diversion and beneficial use of water (Wat. Code, § 348.; Cal. Code Regs., tit. 23, chapters 2.7 and 2.8)

Beneficial use, depending on the permit authorization, may include both in situ (in place) and consumptive (extracted) uses.  Beneficial use reporting is used to confirm diligent use of the right, as rights may be lost if not used.

Sample annual reports for a Permit and a License are available on the Division’s eWRIMs RMS test site. 

Questions or requests for assistance related to annual reports should be directed to the Division of Water Rights Statements Unit as 916-341-5431 or by email at DWR-Statements@waterboards.ca.gov


Contacts

For more information, please contact the staff person in your permitting watershed area. For all other water right inquiries, please call (916) 341-5300.