Streamlined Processing for Standard Groundwater Recharge Water Rights

The state legislature enacted the Sustainable Groundwater management Act (SGMA) to address widespread overdraft and other undesirable results caused by groundwater conditions in California’s groundwater basins. SGMA requires local agencies in high and medium priority basins to develop plans that achieve sustainability in the basin within 20 years of implementation. Groundwater recharge is likely to be an important part of achieving sustainability in groundwater basins, but local 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 local agencies to obtain necessary water rights. Those water rights will, in turn, help Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) reach their sustainability goals more quickly.

The Division of Water Rights (Division) has developed a streamlined permitting process for diversions of water from high flow events to underground storage. The streamlined process will directly assist GSAs and other local agencies working to address SGMA and adverse impacts caused by extractions.

The streamlined permitting process consists of an administrative adjustment in priorities and process. No statutory or regulatory changes were necessary to implement the streamlined permitting process, except for lowering of the associated fee schedule. Streamlining is primarily achieved through identifying eligibility criteria and a simplified water availability analysis (WAA) targeting diversion of high flow events during winter. These criteria and analyses will ensure applications are unlikely to injure other legal users, adversely affect fishery resources, or other public trust resources. The following is a graphical representation of the main components of the streamlined permitting process.

Main components of the streamlined permitting criteria: Eligibility, Beneficial Use, Water Availability Analysis, Water Accounting, and Fees.

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 proceed 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 streamlined permit process for GSA Applicants is identical to the process described for standard permitting. The streamlined process does not change any existing law or policy. Some components of the existing process are streamlined because the project applied for will be designed in accordance with a pre-determined conditioning approach.

Below is an outline of the steps that an applicant must follow to obtain a permit (a full description of the process can be found at the standard permitting webpage):

  1. Review Program Criteria and Limitations. Determine if the project meets the criteria of the program.
  2. File an Application. The application should specifically describe the proposed project's source, place of use, purpose, point(s) of diversion and quantity to be diverted.
  3. Acceptance of Application.  Applicants that submit applications that are accepted for initial review will be notified within 30 days of the date the application is received.
  4. Environmental Review. Consideration of environmental effects is required by the California Environmental Quality Act before a permit can be issued.
  5. Water Availability Analysis. Before granting a permit, the Board must find that there is unappropriated water available to supply the applicant.
  6. Compliance with Applicable Policies. Projects located in certain geographic areas must comply with applicable State Board Policies relevant to processing a water right application.
  7. Public Notice and Protest Resolution. The State Water Board is required by law to publish a notice of the application and any person may file a protest to the application.
  8. Permit Issuance. Two initial Board findings are required before a permit can be issued: (1) unappropriated water is available to supply the applicant, and (2) the applicant's appropriation is in the public interest, a concept that is an overriding concern in all Board decisions.

Example Permit Template - (LINK TO COME)

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.

Robust accounting methodologies for sub-basins or management areas under SGMA may be relied upon to demonstrate beneficial use. As parties pursue various extractive or in situ beneficial uses, the Division will provide the applications as examples to assist others.

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.

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.

The streamlined WAA methodology provides two options for applicants to identify circumstances where injury to senior users and the environment is unlikely because of high flow conditions.

Option 1: Relies on a predetermined threshold to show the presence/ absence of high flow conditions and protects critical ecosystem functions associated with high flows by applying a conservative cap on the amount of water that can be diverted rather than analyses that often require highly site-specific information and a detailed technical investigation. The predetermined threshold explicitly assumes that flows above the 90th percentile daily flow, between December 1 and March 31, are protective of aquatic ecosystem functionality if the total amount of water diverted is capped at 20 percent of the daily flow.  A telemetered gage located near the POD will be the means for demonstrating high flows are present and how much may be diverted without exceeding the 20 percent limit. Staff have developed a WAA for Streamlined Recharge Permitting guidance document describing how to implement this methodology and what technical resources are available.

Option 2: Relies on the presence or imminent threat of flood conditions to demonstrate water availability. An applicant may demonstrate water availability be proposing to divert when flows exceed thresholds that trigger flood control actions necessary to avoid threats to human health and safety, according to established written flood management protocols adopted by a flood control agency.

The Guidance Document is provided to assist in the simplified water availability analysis.  Early outreach and consultation with Division staff is critical for WAA development as prospective applicants will likely be completing the WAA to support the pre-requisite CEQA document prior to filing an application.  Prospective applicants are encouraged to discuss their projects with Division staff in advance and provide a draft copy of the WAA for review and comment.

Right holders will need to demonstrate beneficial use is occurring in order to develop and preserve their water rights. The Division has released a fact sheet describing options for beneficial uses that include both extractive uses (e.g., for irrigation) and in situ uses (e.g., for stopping seawater intrusion). These uses, as well as how much water has been diverted and how much water remains stored underground must be provided in annual reports required by existing law.

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.

Application filing fees for streamlined permits to divert to underground storage during high flow events are described in the current fee schedule summary.


For more information, please contact the designated permitting section staff. For all other water right inquiries, please call (916) 341-5300.