Flagging problem dams for fish survival

Long Valley Dam on the Owens River is one of 181 California dams UC Davis researchers identified as candidates for increased water flows to protect native fish downstream. Photo by xxxx

Long Valley Dam on the Owens River in southern Mono County is one of 181 California dams UC Davis researchers identified as candidates for increased water flows to protect native fish downstream.  The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power finished building the 126-foot-high dam in 1941, creating Crowley Lake. Photo by Stephen Volpin, 2008

By Ted Grantham and Peter Moyle

This drought year, as in those past, California water regulators have given away to cities and farms some river flows critical to fish and wildlife. It’s a dicey tradeoff considering most of our native fishes are in trouble even without the drought.

There are, however, legal backstops to prevent harmful reductions in fish flows, even during a drought as severe as this one. They include the “beneficial use of water” section of the California constitution, state and federal endangered species acts, the public trust doctrine – and one rarely applied state regulation specifically aimed at preventing loss of fish through the operation of dams.

Adopted more than a century ago, Section 5937 of California Fish and Game Code explicitly requires dam owners to release enough flow “at all times” to keep fish “in good condition.”

To this day, however, many dam owners have not met this requirement and the state has not enforced the rule. This is perhaps not surprising given the vast number of dams in the state – more than 3,000 – as well as the high cost of changing dam operations and political resistance to allocating water for environmental purposes.

Citizen lawsuits have successfully applied Section 5937 on the San Joaquin River and a few other dammed waterways. In other words, the rule has been implemented where conservationists’ influence in decision-making is greatest – not necessarily where fish protection is most needed.

If Section 5937 were more broadly applied to improve fish flows, which dams should get the focus of attention?

With that question in mind, the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences developed a systematic and science-based approach for evaluating and targeting dams for potential enforcement.

The newly published method screens dams for evidence of inadequate downstream flows for sustaining healthy fish populations. It provides a scientific basis for dam operators, natural resource managers and policymakers to perform water “triage” — setting management priorities for dams requiring the most urgent attention.


Screening of dams for potential Section 5937 enforcement. High-priority dams are identified by evidence of alteration to natural flow patterns and potential to affect sensitive native fish species. Source: BioScience

Screening of dams for potential Section 5937 enforcement. High-priority dams are identified by evidence of alteration to natural flow patterns and potential to affect sensitive native fish species. Source: BioScience

The system first screens dams subject to the fish flows law – those on relatively large rivers and streams with enough storage capacity to change the timing and magnitude of river flows.

Next, dams are filtered for evidence of alteration to natural flow patterns that could harm fish. This is because California’s native fish species are highly adapted to the natural seasonal variability of flows in rivers and streams.

For example, migratory salmon have evolved to return from the ocean to their natal rivers in the winter, when flows are high from rainfall. After spawning, their young either quickly move out to sea before the home stream gets to warm or grow throughout the summer if the water stays cool. Dams built for water supply storage and flood control can impede the migration and spawning if they capture too much of the winter flows needed for the salmon’s upstream journey or release too little water in the summer for juvenile salmon to migrate downstream or to survive instream.

To assess flow alteration, we compared flows at monitoring stations below dams with predictions of unimpaired flows – the difference indicating the degree dam operations have changed the rivers’ natural flow patterns. In the absence of downstream flow gauges, we examined the dam’s total storage volume relative to the river’s annual flow. (Studies show that dams large enough to capture most or all of the annual river flow are more likely to alter downstream flows.)

Finally, dams with evidence of altered downstream flows are screened for effects on native fish. The filter flags dams in watersheds known to support imperiled native fish sensitive to unnatural changes in flows, salmon, lampreys and splittail are among the kinds of fish highly tuned to California’s seasonal river flow patterns — fishes that would presumably benefit from water releases from dams during migration and spawning.

Using these multiple filters, we evaluated 753 dams on relatively large streams and rivers and identified 181 of them – 25 percent – as high-priority candidates for Section 5937 enforcement.

High-priority candidate dams for Section 5937 enforcement. Source: Center for Watershed Sciences Technical Report (CWS-2014-01).

High-priority candidate dams for Section 5937 enforcement. Source: Center for Watershed Sciences Technical Report (CWS-2014-01).

These dams span the state and represent a broad diversity in reservoir size; ownership (public, private, state agency); and function (flood control, water storage and diversions). All show evidence of downstream flow alteration and are within the range of imperiled fish populations.

One dam on the high-priority list is the Casitas on Coyote Creek, a tributary to the Ventura River. The endangered southern California steelhead trout historically spawned in the creek and still occur in the Ventura River. Currently, the Casitas Municipal Water District exports virtually all water stored behind the dam, leaving completely dry the three-mile reach of Coyote Creek between the dam and the Ventura River.

The 400-foot-high Pine Flat Dam on the Kings River in Fresno County also made it on the list because its operation has greatly changed the river’s natural flow regime, potentially to the detriment of the Kern brook lamprey, a threatened native fish species that lives below the dam.

Several Sacramento River dams, including Shasta, Keswick and Anderson Cottonwood, also are high-priority candidates because of the potential to alter river flows critical to sturgeon, lamprey and Central Valley Chinook salmon.

Identifying dams as “high priority” does not necessarily mean they are, in fact, out of compliance with Section 5937; that determination requires a closer, on-site investigation of dam operations and their effects on fish.

For example, our system flagged Dwinnell Dam on the Shasta River because of its large storage capacity relative to river inflows and its potential to harm coho salmon and other sensitive fish species. Indeed, since its construction in the 1930s, operators have diverted most of the Shasta’s flow for irrigation. The dam’s owner (Montague Water Conservation District), however, recently agreed, as the result of a lawsuit, to release significantly greater flows and to take other measures to protect fish down stream.

Our screening framework relies on relatively coarse indicators of how dams may be affecting the environment. This is because the vast majority of dams have no downstream monitoring of flows or fish population health.

Nonetheless, there is ample evidence that many large California dams likely fall short of providing adequate flows to keep fish in “good condition.” A recent study estimated that more than 80 percent of California’s native fish are at risk of extinction if present trends continue. The fate of these species depends on how we manage dams.

Strategic implementation of Section 5937 could provide reasonable protections of California’s dammed river and streams. A systematic and transparent system for monitoring, evaluating and mitigating the environmental effects of dam could help inform decisions by dam operators, fish and water managers and regulators alike. Our study is a first attempt at providing such a framework.

Ted Grantham is a research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey and Peter Moyle is  a professor of fish biology at UC Davis. Grantham conducted the dams study as a postdoctoral researcher with the university’s Center for Watershed Sciences.

Further reading

Börk KS, Krovoza JF, Katz JV, Moyle PB. 2012. The rebirth of Cal. Fish & Game Code 5937: water for fish. UC Davis Law Review 45: 809-913

Grantham TE, Viers JH, Moyle PB. 2014. Systematic screening of dams for environmental flow assessment and implementation. BioScience [EarlyView] Appendix 1: Hydrologic model description and performance evaluation; Appendix 2: Flow-sensitive fish species list for California; Appendix 3: High-priority candidate dams for assessing environmental flow needs for imperiled species conservation and recovery. Appendix 4: Ranking of candidate dams based on hydrologic, ecological and jurisdictional criteria

Grantham TE and Moyle PB. 2014. Assessing flows for fish below dams: a systematic approach to evaluate compliance of California’s dams with Fish and Game Code Section 5937. Center for Watershed Sciences Technical Reports (CWS-2014-01) :1-136

Grantham TE and Viers JH. 2014. 100 years of California’s water rights system: patters, trends and uncertainty. Environmental Research Letters 9: 084012

Kiernan J, Moyle PB, Crain PK. 2012. Restoring native fish assemblages to a regulated California stream using the natural flow regime concept. Ecological Applications 22: 1472-1482

Moyle PB, Katz JVE, Quiñones RM. 2011. Rapid decline of California’s native inland fishes: A status assessment. Biological Conservation 144: 2414-2423

Moyle, P.B., J. D. Kiernan, P. K. Crain, and R. M. Quiñones. 2013. Climate change vulnerability of native and alien freshwater fishes of California: a systematic assessment approach. PLoS One

Moyle PB, Marchetti MP, Baldridge J, Taylor TL. 1998. Fish health and diversity: justifying flows for a California stream. Fisheries 23: 6-15

Quiñones, R.M., Grantham, T.E., Harvey, B.N., Kiernan, J.D., Klasson, M., Wintzer, A.P., Moyle, P.B. Dam removal and anadromous salmonid (Oncorhynchus spp.) conservation in California. Reviews in Fish Biology [EarlyView] DOI 10.1007/s11160-014-9359-5

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Modernizing drought water allocations


The South Fork of the Feather River feeding Lake Oroville on Sept. 5, 2014. Photo by Kelly M. Grow/California Department of Water Resources

The State Water Resources Control Board recently solicited public comments on how to improve its drought curtailment of water rights. Here is a summary of insights and recommendations from a group of seven California water experts.

By Ellen Hanak, Jeffrey Mount, Jay Lund, Greg Gartrell, Brian Gray, Richard Frank and Peter Moyle 

This past year’s severe drought conditions meant that most users of surface water flows —agricultural, urban and environmental — had significant unmet demands. In May, the State Water Resources Control Board ordered curtailment of water rights for the first time since the drought of 1976-77 – 37 years ago.

The board followed the seniority of water rights, with riparian right-holders having first claim on the available water and appropriative right-holders following by the dates of their appropriations. Many junior appropriators were prohibited from diverting any water. With few exceptions, the board did not factor in other considerations, including the needs of fish and wildlife and public health and safety.

The experience provides valuable lessons for California, which needs to modernize drought water allocations to improve the use of scarce water resources. This will require some urgent actions for the coming year, which also may be dry.

It also behooves the state to use this experience to help establish a more robust allocation process going forward, given the increasing competition for scarce water resources in a growing state and the likelihood that droughts will occur more frequently as the climate warms and hydrologic conditions change.

In this blog, we reflect on the lessons learned from this curtailment experience and outline urgent steps the board can take to improve its regulation and management of water rights in 2015 and beyond.

Photo by Karin Higgins/UC Davis, date

Peter Moyle searches drying creek beds near Sonora for a rare native fish, the Red Hills roach. The UC Davis fish biology professor feared the species had gone extinct because of the drought. He eventually found a trickle of flowing water in Horton Creek supporting some 200 roach. Photo by Karin Higgins/UC Davis, Aug. 14, 2014

To recap, the water board encountered two significant challenges in 2014 for allocating water under conditions of critical scarcity: (1) limitations in measurement and analytical capacity for surface water availability and use; and (2) lack of clarity on policies regarding factors other than water rights seniority, including protection of public health and safety and the environment. As a result, the board invoked its curtailment process quite late in the year. It also largely failed to factor in public health and safety and environmental considerations.

On a positive note, the board was able to use newly available data on surface water diversions to estimate the total demands of right-holders within river systems. These data were required under Senate Bill X7-8, one of the policy bills enacted as part of a comprehensive water package in November 2009.

This law requires all surface water users (including holders of riparian and pre-1914 water rights not subject to the board’s permitting and licensing jurisdiction) to report their diversions to the state. Using actual diversion estimates rather than the generally much higher face value of water rights made the curtailment process fairer to more junior appropriators. This new data source, though still imperfect, is an important building block for modernizing the drought allocation process.

Earlier this year, the water board commissioned a valuable experiment in developing a more formal system for determining surface water availability and allocations. The UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences developed a pilot model of allocations on the Eel and Russian rivers, using data on flow availability from the National Weather Service and the newly available data on surface water diversions.

Source: UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences

A water right curtailment calculation process. Click here for demonstration of process on Eel River. Source: Drought Curtailment of Water Rights – Problems and Technical Solutions, UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences 

The effort, detailed in an Oct. 15 technical comment to the board (Lund et al. 2014), provides a promising approach for systematizing the use of data on water availability and use — so California can make the most efficient use of surface water under scarcity. This approach provides a transparent method for considering available flows and allocating water according to the priorities under state law, including seniority of water rights. The state should expand this approach as quickly as possible for California’s other major watersheds. The state also needs to begin now to address the most urgent gaps in policy and measurement.

Step 1: Modernize curtailments

If precipitation in the 2014-2015 water year is below average, the board will likely be required to issue curtailments again. To make this process fairer, more timely and more efficient, the Board should:

  • Begin the curtailments planning and adjustments with a transparent technical process that forecasts full natural flow in basins are likely to seecurtailments. This process should be defined by January and updated monthly. It can rely on the expertise of the National Weather Service, which already makes routine flood-flow forecasts, and the Department of Water Resources, which assists in the forecasting. Some technical changes will be needed for low-flow forecasts. The forecasts will improve with experience. To this end, the water board should collect data to evaluate the forecasts’ accuracy.

    Predicted monthly flows in Russian River basin for (a) March, (b) April and (c) May 1977. Data from National Weather Service monitoring and flows stations. Source: "Drought Curtailment of Water Rights  -- Problems and Solutions," UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences

    Predicted monthly flows in Russian River basin for (a) March, (b) April and (c) May 1977. Data from National Weather Service monitoring and flows stations. Source: “Drought Curtailment of Water Rights — Problems and Solutions,” UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences

  • Continue to use reported water-use information rather than the face value of water rights in guiding assignment of curtailments. Over time, the board should develop systems for cross-checking the accuracy of data reported by water users, such as with remote sensing information (as Idaho now does).
  • Require larger water users to “call” their planned use. This would improve accuracy of curtailment calculations and make fuller use of available water. It can be done at the beginning of the irrigation season (March 1) for general planning purposes, and then on a more real-time basis as the season advances. Senior right-holders would include intended water transfers in their call for planned use [1].
  • Build a system that accounts for both discharges and diversions, because what ultimately matters for system availability is net diversions – the amount diverted minus the amount returned to the system and available for downstream use. Building on SB X7-8’s requirement to report water diversions, the state should require large users to report return-flow volumes and locations [2]. Urban users already report discharges to the state’s regional water quality control boards. It would be fairly straightforward to require large agricultural water users to do the same, especially when they discharge through canals, pipelines and other conduits. As an interim step, the Department of Water Resources might be charged with developing a default estimation method for agricultural discharges, with water diverters specifying the locations of return flows.
  • Get out in front on the curtailment process, with notifications ready by January for all surface water users, including those holding riparian and pre-1914 rights. The board also should introduce a transparent process of notifying monthly adjustments, factoring in changing water availability conditions, with the possibility of rapidly relaxing curtailments in response to improved conditions. 

Step 2: Set and implement policy on water allocation priorities for public health and safety and the environment

Senior water rights holders objected to the water board’s consideration of these needs in  its curtailment decisions earlier this year. Yet the board has a strong legal basis — indeed, a legal obligation — to account for these factors under the “reasonable use” requirement of the California Constitution (Article X, section 2) [3], the public trust doctrine [4], the Porter-Cologne Act, Section 106 of the California Water Code [5], Fish and Game Code section 5937 [6], the federal and state Endangered Species Acts [7], and other laws [8].

Dry fields and bare groves looking west toward the Coast Range, near San Joaquin, Calif. Photo by Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis, 2014

Dry fields and bare groves looking west toward the Coast Range, near San Joaquin, Calif. Photo by Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis, 2014

To better implement these policies in future water-rights curtailments, the board should:

  • Adopt policy that narrowly defines urgent public health and safety considerations affected by water scarcity. These factors would include supplies adequate for safe drinking water, sanitation and fire suppression under conditions of urgency – an amount often thought of as roughly 50 gallons a person a day. Water allocation under this provision would need to be clearly spelled out, quantified and limited to urgent conditions, when users cannot reasonably be expected to find alternative sources in a timely way. These amounts would count against other allocations to these users. The board should then prioritize these urgent needs within the curtailment process.
  • Clearly identify the priority of various environmental water uses in the curtailment process. This includes water to keep fish in good condition and to supply wildlife refuges.
  • Be explicit about the priority of environmental flows and related temperatures so water right-holders can better plan ahead. Wildlife agencies should clearly identify for the board the drought flow and temperature requirements for priority river segments [9].
  • Consider having a panel of outside experts rapidly review requests for relaxation of environmental standards to help inform its decision-making [10]. Granting these Temporary Urgency Change Petitions currently does not require a scientific assessment of the consequences for fish and wildlife, only concurrence of state and federal fish agencies.
  • Be prepared to initiate targeted, expedited administrative or judicial proceedings to halt diversions that are both unreasonable and have high impact on water supply availability.
Houseboat ramp leads to a waterless pit in the receding Shasta Lake. Photo by Kelly M. Grow/California Department of Water Resources, Aug. 25, 2014

Houseboat ramp leads to a waterless pit in the receding Shasta Lake. Photo by Kelly M. Grow/California Department of Water Resources, Aug. 25, 2014

By taking these initial steps now, the water board will better position California to cope with a dry 2015 and future droughts. Indeed, Californians should be planning every year for the possibility of a drought, since we rarely know before the late winter or early spring what the water year holds.

Over time, this system will evolve with better measurement and more routine reporting of essential information, making it easier for all water users to plan and anticipate how to manage available supplies. One medium-term priority would be to incorporate groundwater use, especially in basins with strong connections between surface and groundwater flows.

The water board, along with state and federal government generally, has been criticized for being reactive during the drought, rather than having prepared for it. We applaud the board’s current efforts to plan for a fourth year of drought before it actually occurs.

Modernizing curtailments and setting priorities and quantities for public health, safety and the environment can be addressed relatively quickly under the current urgent conditions. If it rains this winter, these preparations will be useful for the next drought. If it doesn’t, they will help the state better manage the current crisis.

Ellen Hanak and Jeffrey Mount are senior fellows at the Public Policy Institute of California.  Jay Lund, Richard Frank and Peter Moyle are professors of engineering, law and fish biology, respectively, at UC Davis. Greg Gartrell is an independent consulting engineer, and Brian Gray is a professor at UC Hastings College of the Law.


[1] See Water Code § 1017: “The beneficial use of water pursuant to a transfer or exchange . . . shall constitute a beneficial use of water by the holder of the permit, license, water right, or other entitlement for use that is the basis for the transfer or exchange . . . .”
[2] It may be impractical for the Board to successfully solicit water use and discharge data from all water right-holders and to process that volume of information in curtailments. Experience gained from the UC Davis pilot exercise suggests that approximately 10 percent of water right-holders account for 90 percent of water use. Therefore, the Board may choose to adopt a policy of requiring information from all right-holders, but focus curtailment efforts on a subset of rights that likely affect water availability most.
[3] The fundamental mandate of state water policy is set forth in Article X, Section 2 of the California Constitution, which declares that “because of the conditions prevailing in this State the general welfare requires that the water resources of the State be put to beneficial use to the fullest extent of which they are capable, and that the waste or unreasonable use or unreasonable method of use of water be prevented, and that the conservation of such waters is to be exercised with a view to the reasonable and beneficial use thereof in the interest of the people and for the public welfare.” In Light v. California State Water Resources Control Board (2014) 226 Cal.App.4th1463, the California Court of Appeal confirmed that the constitutional reasonable use mandates apply to all California holders of water rights (including riparian and pre-1914 appropriators), not only to post-1914 permitees and licensees. See also Water Code §§ 100, 102.
[4] National Audubon Society v. Superior Court (1983) 33 Cal.3d 403. The California Supreme Court held in National Audubon that “the state has an affirmative duty to take the public trust into account in the planning and allocation of water resources, and to protect public trust uses whenever feasible.” (Id. (emphasis added).) Public trust resources include fish, wildlife, and their habitat. (Id.) The court also noted that under California water rights law “neither domestic and municipal uses nor instream uses can claim an absolute priority.” (Id.)
[5] Section 106 of the Water Code states that it is “the established policy of this State that the use of water for domestic purposes is the highest use of water and that the next highest use is for irrigation.” Section 106.3 adds that “every human being has the right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking, and sanitary purposes,” and it directs the Board (and other agencies) when adopting or revising its policies. The California Supreme Court has held that these statutes “declare principles of California water policy applicable to any allocation of water resources.”
[6] Section 5937 of the Fish and Game Code directs that all dam owners “shall allow sufficient water at all times to pass through a fishway, or . . . to pass over, around or through the dam, to keep in good condition any fish that may be planted or exist below the dam.” The California Court of Appeal has held that this statutory directive is a proper exercise of the Legislature’s authority to effectuate the purposes of Article X, Section 2. (California Trout v. State Water Resources Control Board 1989) 207 Cal.App.3d 591, 622-625.
[7] State and federal endangered species acts prohibit the “taking” of any endangered or threatened species unless specifically authorized by the terms of a biological opinion or incidental take permit. (Fish & Game Code §§ 2080-2081.1; 16 U.S.C. §§ 1536, 1538 & 1539) To ensure against such unauthorized takings — and for the protection of those water diverters who might run afoul of the statutory prescriptions — the Board must include the biological and habitat needs of California’s fisheries when it determines the amount of water that is likely to be available for diversion and use by water right-holders.
[8] See Hanak et al. (2011) for a discussion of the laws noted here and the related authorities of the Board and other regulatory agencies.
[9] It is impractical to set flow and temperature standards for all rivers in all conditions. Rather, the fish and wildlife agencies should identify which river segments or wildlife refuges are of highest biological value and estimate minimum flow and temperature standards needed for preserving at-risk species within them. Grantham et al. (in press) provide a method for prioritizing regulated rivers for protection of threatened fishes and salmon runs.
[10] Such a panel should include both environmental flow experts and water resource experts, to better consider potential tradeoffs between public health and safety needs and environmental flow needs.

Further reading

Grantham, T, , J. Viers, P. Moyle. 2014. “Systematic Screening of Dams for Environmental Flow Assessment and Implementation.” BioScience. Oct. 15

Hanak, E., J. Lund, A. Dinar, B. Gray, R. Howitt, J. Mount, P. Moyle, B. Thompson. 2011. “Managing California’s Water: From Conflict to Reconciliation.” Public Policy Institute of California

Lund J, Lord B, Fleenor W, Willis A. 2014.  “Drought Curtailment of Water Rights – Problems and Technical Solutions.” Center for Watershed Sciences, UC Davis. Technical comments to the State Water Resources Control Board

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A tribute to California’s ‘First Lady of Water’

Rodney Davis

A former telephone operator from Nebraska, Pauline Davis became the longest-serving woman in the California Legislature and an effective advocate of local water development. Source: private collection of Rodney Davis

By Tina Cannon Leahy

As water policy consultant for the California Assembly, I occasionally research legislative history to iron out competing theories on a law’s meaning. So it was earlier this year when I visited the California State Archives to investigate the Davis-Dolwig Act of 1961.

I took a manila folder from the nice clerk and sat in the rows of small wooden desks to learn what this “Mr. Davis” and “Mr. Dolwig” had in mind when they drafted the bill more than 50 years ago.

My jaw dropped when I pulled a carbon-copied transcript of a 1960 water committee hearing fully identifying the “Davis” as Assemblyman Pauline L. Davis. A woman in the Legislature! Involved in water policy! The water committee chair, no less!

It was, as James Brown sang in the 1960s, “a man’s, man’s, man’s world” back then – and still is, for the most part, in the world of water policy. As a woman in water policy I was awestruck that a woman was tackling water policy before I was born. How could I not know? What ensued was a near-obsession to find out more.

The archives didn’t hold much, but an online perusal of UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library led to a jackpot: Davis had participated in a Women in Politics Oral History Project in the late 70’s and early 80’s but then she embargoed the release of the interview until 2010. (She died in 1995 at age 78.) The library still showed the transcript as unavailable, but a quick conversation with the library remedied that. As far as I know, I became the first public member to gain access.[i]

The memoir unfurled an implausible story: A petite telephone operator and mother of two from Nebraska who in the post-WWII “happy homemaker” era overcomes a divorce and the death of a second husband to become the longest-serving woman in the California Legislature and an effective player in the state’s notoriously testosterone-driven water wars.

Davis and Donahue

Pauline Davis with fellow Assemblywoman Dorothy Donohue in the mid-1950s. Source: private collection of Rodney Davis

Davis was an unrelenting defender of “area-of-origin” laws – protections that give counties where exported water supplies originate a future right to call on that water if the need arises. Several causes she championed and resource questions she confronted are still alive today: How do we balance the needs of different regions of the state while protecting our fisheries? Should we build a peripheral conveyance around the Delta? Who is ultimately responsible for State Water Project enhancements versus maintenance? (That last question brought me to the state archives.)

Davis was sympathetic to the water fears of those in the Delta, stating of the 1982 peripheral canal debate, “I don’t think one geographic area of a state should rob the very thing that keeps the other area of the state alive, because in the final analysis you’re all going to sink.” The “Delta people,” she said, were “having the same problem as the counties of origin.”

Davis’ California odyssey began with a work transfer to Stockton where she tried to save her shaky marriage. The effort failed, but she stayed. Later, on a blind date, she met her second husband, Lester Davis, who was running a Democratic campaign for Assemblyman in a district covering several rural Northern California counties, from Downieville to the Oregon border.

Ms. Davis was none too pleased. Assemblyman was a part-time job that would require her husband to take a leave of absence from his better-paying work as a railroad engineer. But, as she put it, “He assured me that he wouldn’t stay in it very long so I went along with it.” Upon his inauguration in 1947, she became his sole staffer in both the Capitol and the district office in Portola, Plumas County. It gave them extra income and allowed the two to remain together in the constant shuttle between Portola and Sacramento. It was, as Ms. Davis recalled, “a very happy marriage.”


Assemblywoman Pauline Davis campaigning for re-election in 1953. Source: personal collection of Rodney Davis

But in 1952, tragedy struck. The assemblyman died of thrombosis while campaigning for a fourth term. When he still received a majority of the primary votes, turmoil ensued. Democratic party operatives implored the young widow to be the candidate. She refused, citing debt from her late husband’s primary and “the children to raise by myself,” including a toddler. She relented on a promised $5,000 in campaign donations.

No sooner did she accept the nomination than the pledges of support began to evaporate. Her backers then got the first glimpse of the courage that served her later. She threatened to withdraw unless they made good on the money, advising that they “go right across the street to the bank and borrow it.”

They did just that, but financing was only the first of her obstacles. Litigation challenging her late listing on the ballot went all the way to the California Supreme Court. Some considered her candidacy a joke. She recounted that while campaigning in Tulelake “my Republican opponent and the two men with him were making fun of me and really laughing their hearts out as I was walking down the street. So, it gave me a great deal of satisfaction to be able to take the election, because they were so sure of themselves.”


Assemblywoman Pauline Davis occupied the same seat as her late husband on the Assembly Floor – No. 68 – for all 24 years in office. Source: private collection of Rodney Davis

In her first year in the Legislature, she authored a bill requiring equal pay for equal work by women. It never got out of committee. Asked if she endured any particular hostilities, Davis said, “Oh, I encountered those when I became involved in the California water plan.”

Davis immersed herself in water policy at the very start of her legislative career. She considered water to be “so basic of all the other natural resources that I felt that it would be a necessity for me to go into the field as deeply as I could.”

She sought guidance from the Office of the Legislative Counsel – particularly George Murphy and J.D. Straus, the latter of whom she called “a perfectionist in the water field as it pertained to water rights” – and spent every spare hour she could with them.

The knowledge soon served her well. In 1956, Harvey O. Banks, an engineer, is appointed head of the new state Department of Water Resources with the task of developing the State Water Project to export water from the relatively wet north to dry south.

Davis was appalled that fellow northerners did not share her alarm over the proposed enormous transfer of natural wealth.

“My goodness sakes! You’re dealing with liquid gold!” she recalled in her oral history interview. “You’re not dealing with something that is a commodity that can be replaced, because once that water wagon leaves Northern California…it just isn’t coming back!”


A water bond debate in Redding on Feb. 28, 1960. Clair Hill, a water engineering consultant and Sen. Hugo Fisher of San Diego spoke for it. Assembly members Davis and Bruce Allen of San Jose spoke against it. Source: private collection of Rodney Davis

In 1959 the Legislature authorized $1.75 billion in general obligation bonds for construction of the State Water Project. Gov. As Norris Hundley Jr. tells it in “The Great Thirst,” Pat Brown won over Davis and other northern legislators by offering a compromise measure – the Davis-Grunsky Act – authorizing $130 million of the bond sales for development of local water projects. As Davis put it in a newspaper commentary, a “water bond issue of this magnitude should include absolute guarantees for the protection and maintenance of important recreation features, such as salmon and steelhead spawning grounds that might be destroyed by the construction of a water project.”[ii]

By 1961 DWR was pushing to dam the Feather River and create the giant Lake Oroville – in Davis’ district. She leveraged the Oroville debate to achieve her second major piece of legislation, the Davis-Dolwig Act, which requires consideration of fish and wildlife enhancement and recreational opportunities when planning State Water Project facilities. Importantly, the law also mandates that the project’s water and power contractors pay for actions to help fish and wildlife affected by the project.

By Shakespeare’s measure, Davis’ contributions to California water policy are clear: Her past was prologue. Look no further than this year’s water bond measure, Proposition 1. The two biggest fights during the drafting were how much to spend on surface water storage and whether funding should benefit the Bay Delta Conservation Plan.


Pauline Davis detonates explosives at a ceremonial groundbreaking of the Grizzly Valley Dam near Portola on Sept. 27, 1964. Source: private collection of Rodney Davis

Prop. 1 would have met Davis’ approval. Her enthusiastic support for building reservoirs earned her the moniker “Lady of the Lakes.” A news photo of the groundbreaking ceremony for the state-owned Grizzly Valley Dam in Plumas County 50 years ago shows Davis as the lone female official flanked by her grown daughters and young son, Rodney Davis, who became a state appellate court judge and is now an Episcopal priest. With a plunger, she set off the first explosive in the construction of the dam, which formed Lake Davis, named in honor of her late husband.

Davis served 24 years in the Assembly, from 1953 through 1976, as was described by former Assembly Speaker Leo T. McCarthy as “the most effective legislator in representing her district that I have ever seen.”[iii] From 1960 to 1966, she was the sole woman in the 120-member Legislature. Reflecting on male chauvinism in her oral history, Davis advised women to “learn the men’s language, study their minds, and the way they work in the political arena and in the business field, and just go forward and not let it bother you too much.”

Here’s to you Pauline Davis. Wife. Mother. Widow. Politician. Water warrior. Role model. California’s First Lady of Water.

Tina Cannon Leahy is Principal Consultant for the California Assembly Water, Parks & Wildlife Committee. The opinions expressed here are strictly her own.

[i] All quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are from Pauline L. Davis, “California Assemblywoman, 1952-1976,” an oral history conducted 1977-1982 by Malca Chall, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 1986.

[ii] Unattributed newspaper clipping. Personal collection of Rodney Davis

[iii] Associated Press, Pauline Davis; Assemblywoman for 24 Years, December 16, 1995

Further reading

Chall, Malca. “Pauline L. Davis, California Assemblywoman, 1952-1976,” Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 1986

Video of President John F. Kennedy at Sept. 28, 1963 dedication of the federal Whiskeytown Dam near Redding, Calif. (Assemblywoman Davis can be seen on speakers’ platform, wearing a red dress.)

The Davis-Grunsky Act

The Davis-Dolwig Act

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Drought Journal: Hope springs eternal

Peter Moyle

UC Davis fish biologist Peter Moyle logs data on fish and stream conditions earlier this month on Martis Creek, near Truckee. Studies show such small, spring-fed streams can be important refuges for native fishes during drought. Photo: UC Davis

Is the drought hastening the decline of California’s native fish? Will they be able to recolonize once normal conditions return?

To help find out, a team of researchers with the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences took the pulse of about 70 streams and rivers across northern and central California this summer, examining habitat conditions and recording the composition and density of fish communities. The selected streams all have data from earlier fish surveys for comparison. Here, the scientists leading the effort report on some of the more obscure streams fed mainly by springs rather than snowmelt and rain runoff.

Peter Moyle and Rebecca M. Quiñones

In a severe drought, a cold, free-flowing stream is a marvel. This past summer, we traveled around Northern California looking for such streams. Our guide was field notes from UC Davis fish-sampling trips 10 to 30 years ago, which tell us where the best places should be.

We were often discouraged, finding dry stream beds or just a few stagnant pools. But we also found a few streams that persisted no matter the drought. These are spring-fed streams, and it was stunning to see them in the dry landscapes we visited. Many clearly are refuges for native fishes.

We are not referring to the large and famous spring streams, such as Hat Creek and the Fall and McCloud rivers, but much smaller streams that are often neglected. We visited six such streams in recent weeks. Here are some observations:

Parson Springs and Mill creeks, Modoc County. These two cold headwater streams did not appear to have changed much since the 1980s. Protected by the U.S. Forest Service, Parson Springs Creek is a small, classic meadow stream abundant with small trout. Mill Creek is similar except heavily grazed, with little riparian vegetation. Both streams ultimately irrigate farms in Jess Valley, leaving little water to support the South Fork Pit River, which is now dry.

Sagehen Creek, Placer and Nevada counties. Sagehen is one of the most studied streams in California, with fish surveys dating to the 1950s. Although there have been shifts in the creek’s trout species, summer flows have been remarkably constant over the years. Fish, especially sculpins, have remained abundant in the upper watershed. Flows were not exceptionally low in this drought year. However, recent studies indicate that the flows are from snowfall two years earlier. Thus, the drought may not strongly affect the creek until next year.

Willow Ck

Members of the UC Davis drought research team check conditions in Willow Creek, Lassen County. Photo: UC Davis

Willow Creek, Lassen County. This tributary of the lower Susan River starts as a series of cold springs in a chain of meadows. The meadows and streamside are heavily grazed. Riparian vegetation is sparse. The creek nevertheless seems to maintain much of its integrity and flows. We found that it continues to support large populations of native fishes such as speckled dace, Lahontan redside and Tahoe sucker. Trout, however, were rare.

Pine Creek, Lassen County. This is the only major tributary to Eagle Lake, which is perhaps the only natural lake in California free of non-native fishes. Drought has reduced Eagle to remarkably low levels. We found most of Pine Creek to be dry, eliminating stream populations of two native fishes (both found in the lake, fortunately). There is a concentrated effort to restore Pine Creek as the spawning stream for endemic Eagle Lake rainbow trout. The biggest obstacle are the abundant brook trout in the headwater springs (Carmona-Catot et al. 2012). In the 2 to 3 miles of creek still flowing with spring water, we found mainly brook trout and a few speckled dace. In years past, the two species had been equally abundant.

Martis Ck 2Martis Creek, Placer County. We visited the lower 3 miles of Martis, near Truckee, where fish ecology studies have been conducted for the past 30 years (Kiernan et al. 2012). The fish populations have a complex relationship with high-flow events. The reach below Martis Creek Dam (a flood control structure that maintains flows in the lower creek, like a spring) has been dominated most years by four to five native fishes that can tolerate fairly warm water. In contrast, the lowermost reach has consistently been dominated by non-native rainbow and brown trout, in part because springs enhance flows and decrease temperatures. The same pattern was found this summer, with native species being exceptionally abundant just below the dam.

Our studies show that small spring streams can be important refuges for native and other desirable fishes during drought.

It is increasingly evident that all spring streams in California need to be identified and need additional protections, such as fencing off cattle to preserve streamside vegetation. We need to understand what governs flows from springs and how much each stream is isolated from others as the result of human changes to the landscape.

In long droughts, even spring streams may dry up, especially in poorly managed watersheds with limited infiltration of rain and snowmelt. Managing small spring streams should be an important part of a statewide strategy for protecting our native aquatic biota.

The need for a statewide conservation strategy for our streams and their biota is even more apparent in the new book by Lynn Ingram and Frances Malamud-Roam, “The West without Water: What Past Floods, Droughts and other Climatic Clues Tell Us about Tomorrow.” The book makes the case for regarding present conditions as being rather benign. Much worse droughts, followed by massive floods, have occurred regularly in the past 1,000 or more years.

This reality is hard to grasp as we splash around in cold streams. But do the fish in even these seemingly permanent streams have a future under our present management? Read the book and think about it.

Peter Moyle is a distinguished professor of fish biology and Rebecca M. Quiñones is a post-doctoral researcher with the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.

Further reading

Carmona-Catot, G., P. B. Moyle, and R. E. Simmons. 2012. Long-term captive breeding does not necessarily prevent reestablishment: lessons learned from Eagle Lake Rainbow Trout. Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries 22:325-342

Ingram, L.B., and F. Malamud-Roam. 2014. “The West without Water: What Past Floods, Droughts and other Climatic Clues Tell Us about Tomorrow.” University of California Press.

Kiernan, J. D., and P. B. Moyle. 2012. Flows, droughts, and aliens: factors affecting the fish assemblage in a Sierra Nevada, California, stream. Ecological Applications 22:1146-1161

Manfree, Amber. Drought Journal: Search for Sierra fish goes from bad to worse. California WaterBlog, Aug. 18, 2014

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Hike Tuolumne Meadows — without breaking a sweat


Source: UC Davis center for Watershed Sciences
Opening scene of the Tuolumne Meadows Virtual Hike. Source: UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, Google Maps.

By Sarah Yarnell

To enjoy the full sweep of Yosemite’s lush and lovely Tuolumne Meadows, as shown above, you need to head for the high country on the national park’s north side and hike a 3-mile trail that climbs 900 feet to the top of the granitic Lembert Dome. There, at elevation 9,500 feet, you can take in the majesty of this broad, glacially sculpted valley and the wildly serpentine Tuolumne River.

Of course, not everyone has the time and means to go climb this rock and hike about the alpine meadow. Digital technology, however, makes it possible to see and hear the place almost as though you were there.


This screenshot from the Tuolumne Meadows Virtual Hike shows the Tuolumne River with a map below of the location and field of view.  The 3.4-mile hike has 44 stops (yellow dots). Stops 10 to 24 feature brief videos about the meadows and the park’s history, played by clicking on the purple camera icon (center). Photo: UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences

A team of researchers and students at the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences recently produced such a virtual hike of Tuolumne Meadows in the interest of time and education. The meadows are an ideal laboratory for students of our spring fieldwork course in river science. But the university’s 10-week quarter system does not allow the travel and field time needed to fully explore the watershed.

The virtual hike provides a more immersive experience than the traditional slide-show lecture. It is self-directed and students can view it at their convenience. Using navigation tools similar to those for traveling Google Earth, they can point and zoom from any angle on features of interest to them. While Google Earth limits ground-level views to well-populated streets, the meadows tour has remarkably crisp resolution throughout.

Nick Santos

Nick Santos, technical director of the Center for Watershed Sciences’ virtual tours, captured the panorama of Tuolumne Meadows from the top of Lembert Dome using this GigaPan equipment. Photo: UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences 

To capture the panorama from Lembert Dome, we used GigaPan photography equipment — a high quality digital camera on a robotically swiveling tripod mount — that combines thousands of photos into a single gigapixel image, which is more than 100 times the information captured by the latest iPhone camera.

In the meadows, we mounted the camera with a fisheye lens on a panoramic tripod head, or panohead, for accurate alignment of images in producing panoramic views — 360 degrees horizontally and 180 degrees vertically. We used the panoramic software PTGui to stitch together the images and Panotour to create the navigation and embed instructor’s mini-lectures on river channel formation, watershed processes and such.

Molly Ogaz

Student Molly Ogaz records narrator of Yosemite National Park sign at the historic Parsons Memorial Lodge on the Tuolumne Meadows interpretive trail. Photo: UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences

The public version shown at the top dispenses with the technical lectures and instead features vignettes on the meadows and park history — the same information posted along the Tuolumne Meadows interpretive trail. We simply assembled video-recorded images and clips relevant to the National Park Service signs and narrated the text.

This virtual hike begins atop Lembert Dome for the overview. From there you can jump down for a stroll through the meadow. The virtual 3.4-mile hike is longer and closer to the river than the 0.8 mile interpretive trail. The stretch featuring videos of the interpretive trail signs are between stops 10 and 24. The hike may take several minutes to load depending on your internet connection.

Of course, nothing virtual can surpass the enjoyment of actually being there. We’re hoping the on-screen hike will entice viewers to visit Tuolumne Meadows and venture beyond the interpretive trail for a more intimate Tuolumne River experience.

Sarah Yarnell teaches the rivers science course, Ecogeomorphology, at UC Davis. She is a senior researcher with the university’s Center for Watershed Sciences.

Source: Google Maps

The virtual 3.4-mile hike (yellow) and the actual 0.8-mile interpretive trail (red) in Tuolumne Meadows. Source: Google Maps

Further reading

Case, Elizabeth. Virtual hike transports students to Tuolumne Meadows, The Davis Enterprise, Aug. 14, 2014

High resolution panoramas of Tuolumne and Clavey rivers, UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences

Ecogeomorphology course, 2014, UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences

Student videos of Tuolumne River, UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences, 2013

Yarnell, Sarah. Students rise to the storytelling challenge, California WaterBlog, Sept. 30, 2013




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Groundwater reform more important than water bond

Photo by Kelly M. Grow/California Department of Water Resources

Delivery point of the Coachella Valley Water District’s groundwater replenishment facility. Imported Colorado River percolates into the valley’s aquifer, replenishing 40,000 acre-feet of water annually. Photo by Kelly M. Grow/California Department of Water Resources

By Jay Lund and Thomas Harter

California lawmakers recently found extraordinary consensus in approving a $7.5 billion water bond for the November election ballot. If the measure wins, however, future generations will not necessarily reap many of the promised water supply benefits without additional actions.

To significantly improve its resilience to drought, California must quickly get a grip on the runaway depletion of its dwindling groundwater resources.

In this year’s drought alone, California farms and cities are expected to pump more than 20 million acre-feet from aquifers. That is more than all the surface water diverted from the state’s rivers and streams. And it is far more water than could physically be delivered from all the additional reservoir capacity proposed for bond funding.

Groundwater is and always will be California’s primary buffer against droughts. Yet many parts of the state have been drawing on aquifers as if they were bottomless savings accounts.

The pump-as-you-please practice threatens the sustainability of the state’s most profitable agriculture, particularly permanent crops such as vineyards and orchards. Continued overdraft furthers land subsidence and seawater intrusion, worsens water quality and diminishes fish and wildlife habitat dependent on groundwater. As water tables drop, the annual costs of pumping and drilling more and deeper wells quickly exceed those of financing the proposed water bond – about $500 million in state general funds a year, for 30 years.

Source: California Department of Water Resources

Source: California Department of Water Resources

Agriculture and rural residents will initially bear the brunt of increased pumping costs and diminished reliability of groundwater during droughts. In the longer term, pumping as usual means groundwater simply will not be an available alternative to many Californians who lose access to surface water during droughts.

The current drought poses a historical opportunity to bridge a major gap in California water regulation that other western states remedied almost a century ago.

While the water bond contains many useful elements, the Legislature has before it much more important legislation for ensuring California’s resilience in droughts. Two proposals, Senate Bill 1168 carried by Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills (Los Angeles County), and Assembly Bill 1739 authored by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, would require local agencies to manage groundwater sustainably.

Sustaining a prosperous civilization in California’s dry climate requires firm accounting of all major water resources, including groundwater. When management of a resource as valuable as groundwater is lacking, overdraft and litigation fill the void. Investments that depend on groundwater then become riskier, leading water users to pursue more secure, but more expensive and environmentally damaging water supply sources such as deeper wells and new reservoirs. The added risk of unreliable groundwater also can increase the cost of credit for agriculture and rural development.

Increasing the security and enforceability of groundwater and surface-water rights is the most effective action the Legislature can take to help this dry state weather droughts and reduce water costs to cities and farms.

Jay Lund, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Thomas Harter, a groundwater specialist, are with the Center for Watershed Sciences at UC Davis. 

Further reading

Lund, J.R., Medellin-Azuara, J., Harter, T. (2014). Why California’s agriculture needs groundwater management. California WaterBlog. May 26, 2014

Lund, J.R., et al. Taking agriculture conservation seriously. California WaterBlog. March 15, 2011

Grabert, V.K., Harter, T., Parker, T. (2014). Modernizing California’s groundwater management. California WaterBlog. June 22, 2014

Howitt, R.E., Medellin-Azuara, J., MacEwan, D., Lund, J.R. and Sumner, D.A. (2014). Economic Analysis of the 2014 Drought for California Agriculture. Center for Watershed Sciences, University of California, Davis, Calif. 20p

Nirappil, Fenit (2014). California Water Bond Won’t Be a Drought-Buster. Associated Press, Aug. 16 , 2014

Williams, Juliet (2014). California water bond signals historic compromise . Associated Press, Aug. 14, 2014

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California water rights: You can’t manage what you don’t measure

Photo by Joshua Viers/UC Merced

An irrigation ditch supplies Merced County farms. State regulators are increasingly seeking to know how much water is being used throughout the state, and by whom. Photo by Joshua Viers/UC Merced, April  23, 2014

By Ted Grantham and Joshua Viers

California water experts have long known the amount of surface water granted by water rights far exceeds the state’s average supplies. Historically, the over-allocation has not raised much concern; in most years, there has been enough runoff of rain and snowmelt to go around.

But circumstances are changing. California is suffering the third driest year in a century and demands for water are at an all-time high. The huge gap between allocations and natural flows — coupled with great uncertainty over water-rights holders’ actual usage — is increasingly creating conflicts between water users and confusion for water managers trying to figure out whose supplies should be curtailed during a drought.

To understand where and to what degree California rivers have been claimed, we mapped all appropriative water rights recorded by the State Water Resources Control Board. We quantified the total “face value”, or maximum annual diversion volume, of water rights for all rivers and streams and compared this data with estimates of water supply.

Source: UC Davis center for Watershed Sciences

Cumulative water-right allocations relative to mean annual runoff, excluding water rights for hydropower generation. Source: UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences

We found that water rights exceed average supplies in more than half of the state’s large river basins, including the Salinas River, where water-rights claims amount to three times the average flow, and the San Joaquin River, where water rights exceed flows by as much as eightfold. (For details see Table: Water Rights Allocation Volumes for Major California River Basins)

Not only are many rivers over-allocated but the amount of water actually used by water-rights holders is poorly understood. Comparisons of allocations with water use suggest that in most of California, only a fraction of claimed water is being used. Statewide, appropriative water-rights claims for consumptive uses are about five times greater than average surface-water withdrawals.

The Associated Press recently reported that the state water board is unable to track the water usage tied to many of California’s oldest and largest water rights (Dearen & Burke 2014). The state system primarily relies on self-reported water use records, which are riddled with errors, even for the some of the state’s largest water users.

In a well-functioning water-rights system where allocations are closely tracked and verified, over-allocation is not necessarily a problem. During water shortages, the state would order holders of junior appropriation rights to curtail use. When water is abundant, most water-rights holders should be able to fully exercise their claims.

Inaccurate accounting, however, threatens the security of water rights — particularly when water is scarce. Earlier in this drought year, for example, the water board sought to protect fish in some watersheds by threatening curtailments of water rights held by all users within those drainages. More targeted cutbacks might have been sufficient if the agency had accurate water-use information.

Photo By Joshua Viers/UC Merced, April 22. 2014

California grants an average of more than five times as much than is available in its rivers and streams. Photo by Joshua Viers/UC Merced, April 22, 2014

The lax water accounting has intensified conflicts between users during the drought. Operators of the state and federal water projects recently asked the water board to investigate diversion practices by farmers in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. As the Sacramento Bee recently reported, the water agencies suspect farmers are taking water released from upstream dams that is intended for consumers elsewhere. The California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, a group often allied with Delta landowners, has countered with a formal complaint to the board alleging that the agencies are illegally diverting water from rivers that flow into the Delta. (Weiser 2014).

Innovative approaches to California’s water management challenges also are dependent on accurate water-rights accounting (Hanak et al. 2011). For example, water markets rely on transparent and accurate quantification of water transfers. Uncertainty in water rights may also discourage conjunctive management of surface and groundwater to improve water supply reliability (Draper et al. 2003).

In over-prescribed systems, water needed to meet new and evolving demands will likely require curtailment of water rights. This is not as daunting or threatening as it may seem.

Impacts to private water rights will likely be minimal because public agencies control the bulk of the state’s water supply. Tightening the water accounting would have a much greater effect on state and federal water project operators, water utilities and irrigation districts that collectively hold rights to 80 percent of the allotted water — compared with less than 1 percent held by individuals.


(a) Water rights and (b) face value allocation volumes issued to public and private entities since 1915, based on appropriative water-rights records. Volumetric allocations to water rights held by individuals in (b) is negligible. Source: UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences

Major policy changes may not be necessary to improve California’s water rights system. California law already allows re-allocation of water rights to address evolving societal needs and changing environmental conditions (Littleworth and Garner 2007). For example, the public trust doctrine establishes that the government has an ongoing duty to safeguard natural resources (Frank 2012). California’s Fish and Game Code 5937 is an expression of that doctrine, requiring dam owners to provide enough flows below impoundments to maintain fish in good condition.

The state water board, however, will need legislative authority and funding to improve the recordkeeping and effectively enforce water rights. According to board staff, the agency does not have the resources to systematically verify water usage or check even the most obvious mistakes in the records. Yet the board still relies on these inaccurate data in deciding how and where to grant water-rights permits (Dearan and Burke 2014).

Improving the water-rights system, of course, will not alone solve California’s myriad water management challenges (Hanak et al. 2011). But without better quantification and regulation of water rights, prospects of reconciling competing water demands in a drought-stricken state will remain bleak.

The tools and technology to quantify water supplies and accurately track usage are at our disposal. All that is lacking is political will.

Ted Grantham, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, analyzed the state water-rights database as a postdoctoral researcher at the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. Joshua Viers is director of the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS) at UC Merced. Their study of the California water rights system was published Aug. 19, 2014

Time lapse of California water rights allocations, 1915-2012


Further reading

Börk K S, Krovoza J F, Katz J V and Moyle P B. 2012. The Rebirth of California Fish & Game Code Section 5937: Water for Fish. UC Davis Law Review. 45 809–913

Dearen J and Burke G. 2014. California’s flawed water system can’t track usage. Associated Press, May 27, 2014.

Draper A, Jenkins M, Kirby K, Lund J, Howitt R. 2003. Economic-Engineering Optimization for California Water Management. Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management 129: 155-164

Frank R M. 2012. The Public Trust Doctrine: Assessing Its Recent Past & Charting Its Future. UC Davis Law Review. 45 665–92

Grantham T and Viers J. 2014. 100 years of California’s water rights system: patterns, trends and uncertainty, Environmental Resource Letters. 9 084012

Hanak E, Lund J, Dinar A, Gray B, Howitt R, Mount J, Moyle P and Thompson B B. 2011. Managing California’s Water: From Conflict to Reconciliation. Public Policy Institute of California, San Francisco, Calif.

Little Hoover Commission. 2010. Managing for Change: Modernizing California’s Water Governance. Sacramento, Calif.

Littleworth A L and Garner E L. 2007. California Water II. Solano Press Books, Point Arena, Calif.

Weiser, Matt. 2014. Water agencies: Delta farmers may be taking water meant for other regions. The Sacramento Bee, Aug. 18, 2014

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