Bills of 2023 | Unraveling the gold rush: New law aims to sort out water rights

The Klamath River flows outside of Happy Camp on Aug. 29, 2022. Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters
The Klamath River flows outside of Happy Camp on Aug. 29, 2022. Photo by Martin do Nascimento, CalMatters

Editor’s note: As 2023 draws to a close, The Signal is presenting CalMatters’ wrap-up stories on some of the key bills that reached the governor’s desk at the close of the 2023 legislative session. Here’s the CalMatters summary of Senate Bill 389, which aims to clarify some decades-old water rights questions. 

By Rachel Becker  

CalMatters Writer 

Senate Bill 389, by Sen. Ben Allen, a Democrat from Redondo Beach, spells out the state’s powers to investigate even the longest-standing claims to water from California’s rivers and streams.  

Under the state’s byzantine, Gold Rush-era water rights system, so-called “senior water rights” holders — those who have claims to water flowing past their property or that pre-date a 1914 law — use about a third of the surface water supply. They are not required to have permits or licenses, and the state’s power to investigate them has been murky.   

This bill authorizes the State Water Board to investigate and seek verification of these water rights claims, as well as ask for information about water use. It also spells out that the board can take action against unauthorized water users under its existing authority.   

Who Supports It 

The bill’s sponsor is the Planning and Conservation League, a nonprofit environmental lobbying organization. The group last year published a report from a panel of water experts who recommended a slew of changes to the state’s water rights system. Other supporters listed as of Sept. 9 included Sierra Club California, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Trout Unlimited, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations and the Karuk Tribe.   

Who Is Opposed  

The bill initially faced a long list of opponents, including water providers, builders, business interests, irrigation districts and agricultural groups, who said that the bill would “strip claimants of their rights with little due process.”  

But the bill was amended to clarify due process requirements, drop a reference to forfeiting water rights and add a requirement that the board explain its requests for information. By the time the bill reached the Assembly floor, a coalition of opponents, including the powerful Association of California Water Agencies, the California Farm Bureau and the California Chamber of Commerce, shifted to neutral.   

Why It Matters 

The year started out with three major bills taking aim at reforming California’s water rights system, which has been roundly criticized for its exclusion of Native peoples and people of color and for promising more water than is available.  

A standoff over the Shasta River, where local ranchers diverted water in violation of state orders and faced a fine of roughly $50 each, publicly demonstrated the state’s limited powers to enforce its priority system.   

Of the three bills, Allen’s bill is the only survivor, although the others may be revived next year.   

Governor’s Call 

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Oct. 8 he signed the bill. 

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