California water rights verification bill, SB 389, passes Senate and advances to Governor’s Desk




By Dan Bacher | 

On September 12, the California State Senate approved SB 389, legislation by Senator Ben Allen (D – Santa Monica) that gives the State Water Resources Control Board the power to verify pre-1914 and riparian water rights.

The bill passed by a vote of 30 ayes to 8 noes. The ayes were Allen, Archuleta, Ashby, Atkins, Becker, Blakespear, Bradford, Cortese, Dodd, Durazo, Eggman, Glazer, Gonzalez, Hurtado, Laird, Limón, McGuire, Menjivar, Min, Newman, Padilla, Portantino, Roth, Rubio, Skinner, Smallwood-Cuevas, Stern, Umberg, Wahab and Wiener.

The noes were Alvarado-Gil, Dahle, Jones, Nguyen, Niello, Ochoa Bogh, Seyarto, Wilk. The two NVRs were Caballero and Grove.  

Bill proponents include a coalition of environmental, science, fishing and climate justice groups and the Karuk Tribe, Winnemem Wintu Tribe and Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians. They said the bill is needed because the Water Board “presently lacks the tools to promptly investigate and determine whether senior water right claims are inflated or represent the amounts that the claimants have the right to divert and use. Reforms allowing the Water Board to verify these claimed water rights could make water available for more junior water rights holders and, in times of scarcity, continue to provide for fishery and other key beneficial uses.” 

In a statement, they said the Water Code amendment proposed by SB 389 would “address this gap in Water Board authority by allowing the Water Board to selectively investigate and determine whether a water right claimant, diverter, or user is diverting or using water under a defensible claim of right.”

“With this authority, the Water Board will have the ability to better manage the water system, benefitting all users and protecting the ecology of California’s many beautiful streams,” they stated. 

On the other hand, the Contra Costa Water District, one of the bill opponents, argued that “substantive changes to the state’s water rights will have ripple effects with unintended consequences to what is a complex system. CCWD encourages legislators to consider holding additional hearings and forming working groups to bring water agency leaders operating under the existing water rights system together to discuss modifications that will achieve shared goals to protect water users and the environment.” 

Representatives of the coalition of groups supporting legislation applauded the passage of the bill — and are urging Governor Gavin Newsom to sign it into law. The date that the Governor must sign or veto all bills is October 14.

“California’s current water rights system is outdated and inequitable,” said Dr. Amanda Fencl, Western States Senior Climate Scientist, Union of Concerned Scientists. “This bill provides a modest update by giving the Water Board accurate information about everyone’s water rights and usage, independent of when those rights were established, so it can more effectively manage our water resources." 

“The bill is a good first step looking at the origin of water rights that came about because of pre-1914 water rights that originated from murder, dispossession and genocide,” said Gary Mulcahy, Winnemem Wintu Tribe.  

“SB 389 is an essential step as we work toward a sustainable and just water future in California,” stated Keiko Mertz, M.S., Policy Director, Friends of the River.

“SB 389 aims to ensure the Water Board has the information it needs to be able to operate the system responsibly and fairly for all users. Giving the board the power of verification is not punitive; it is information gathering...it’s just good accounting,” argued Matthew Baker, Policy Director, Planning and Conservation League. 

“The success of SB 389 represents a pragmatic and common sense march towards remaking the water rights system so that it works for fish, water and people,” said Redgie Collins, Legal and Policy Director, CalTrout,

“SB 389 is a long overdue first step to addressing a broken water rights system that historically has not prioritized rural communities and communities of color. Enforcing water protection cannot be realized without accurate knowledge of water availability, usage, and modernized water rights,” said Marquis King Mason, Advocacy Partnership Coordinator, California Environmental Voters. “But our work isn’t done yet - we are determined and excited to continue building support for water rights reform. ” 

Andy Hattala, Water Policy Lead, The Climate Reality Project California Coalition, noted that "SB 389 does not solve the water crises, nor the water volatility faced by California. However, it enumerates powers and enables oversight of water rights essential to the establishment of better and more sustainable water management." 

Below are the lists of supporters and opponents of the bill: 

SUPPORT: (Verified 9/11/23)

Planning and Conservation League (source)

California Climate Reality Coalition

California Coastkeeper Alliance

California Environmental Voters

California Outdoors

California Sportfishing Protection Alliance

California Water Research

Clean Water Action

Climate Action California

Climate Reality Project, Los Angeles Chapter

Climate Reality Project, San Fernando Valley Chapter

Coast Action Group

Defenders of Wildlife

Friends of The River

Karuk Tribe

Mono Lake Committee

Natural Heritage Institute

Northern California Council, Fly Fishers International

Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations

Restore the Delta

Sacramento River Council

San Francisco Baykeeper

San Mateo County Democracy for America

Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians

Sierra Club California

Trout Unlimited

Tuolumne River Trust

Union of Concerned Scientists

Water Foundation  

Water Replenishment District

Wholly H2O

Winnemem Wintu Tribe 

OPPOSITION: (Verified 9/11/23)

Agricultural Council of California

Antelope Valley East-Kern Water Agency

Bella Vista Water District

California Alliance for Jobs

California Association of Winegrape Growers

California Builders Alliance

California Building Industry Association

California Business Properties Association

Carmichael Water District

City of Fairfield

Coachella Valley Water District

Coastside County Water District

County of Fresno

County of San Joaquin

County of Tulare

Cucamonga Valley Water District

East Turlock Subbasin Groundwater Sustainability Agency

Elk Grove Water District

Florin Resource Conservation District

Friant Water Authority

Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District

Jerry Dyer, Mayor of City of Fresno

Kern County Water Agency

Kings River Conservation District

Kings River Water Association

Lake Arrowhead Community Services District

McKinleyville Community Services District

Modesto Irrigation District

Mojave Water Agency

Montecito Water District

Mountain Counties Water Resources Association

Napa County Flood Control and Water Conservation District

Orange County Water District

Pinedale County Water Agency

Placer County Water Agency

Rosedale-Rio Bravo Water Storage District  

Sacramento Regional Builders Exchange

San Diego County Water Authority

San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District

San Gorgonio PASS Water Agency

San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors Water Authority

San Juan Water District

San Luis Delta-Mendota Water Authority

Santa Clarita Valley Water Agency

Santa Margarita Water District

Solano County Board of Supervisors

Solano Irrigation District

State Water Contractors, Inc.

Stockton East Water District

Sweetwater Authority

Tehachapi-Cummings County Water District

Tranquillity Irrigation District

Tri-County Water Authority

Tulare Irrigation District

Tuolumne County Water Agency

Tuolumne Utilities District

United Water Conservation District

Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District

Valley Center Municipal Water District

Western Canal Water District 


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