Salmonid Restoration Federation

General Questions

How is SRF involved with water rights on California's North Coast?

In late spring of 2013, spurred by fish kills resulting from illegal and poorly constructed water diversions in both China Creek and Seely Creek (tributaries of Redwood Creek on the South Fork Eel River), the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) Division of Water Rights issued notices of “Potential Unauthorized Diversion and Use of Water” and “Failure to File a Statement of Water Diversion and Use in Humboldt County” to dozens of landowners in the China Creek watershed. This incident brought to light that hundreds of landowners on the North Coast are not in compliance with state water law and thereby vulnerable to enforcement, especially if their water diversions may harm state and/or federally listed fish.

Established as a legal means for protecting our rivers as a shared resource and public trust value, water diversion permitting requirements have existed in California for many years, but historically were not enforced in Humboldt County until recently. Prior to the enforcement sweep, many landowners were not aware they had to report their water diversions and register their storage water rights to comply with state water law and avoid potentially onerous fines.

SRF is working to provide hands-on assistance to rural landowners who are interested in complying with state water law. The Water Rights Education Campaign is an ongoing component of The Redwood Creek Water Conservation Project, a local effort initiated in 2013 to address low stream flows that affect local residents and fish.

What is the order of priority for water rights holders?

1. Riparian rights (First Priority)

2. Pre-1914 Appropriative Rights

3. Post-1914 Appropriative Rights

If I have questions about coming into compliance with State Water Law, can I ask them anonymously?

Yes. You can call the State Water Board Division of Water Rights and speak with Matt McCarthy ((916) 341-5310) for questions relating to diversion of water. You won’t be required to give any personal information over the phone.

How does partial compliance, or compliance by only some citizens help protect the fish?

As more citizens come into compliance with state water law, regulatory agencies will begin to have a more accurate understanding of how much water is being used throughout the state. This, in turn, will make it less likely that water will be over-allocated for large- and small-scale water projects, and will result in more water staying in the rivers, springs and streams when fish need it most.

If all landowners on a stream have the same riparian rights, how does that balance against the fish needs?

With a system of forbearance we can determine when diversions need to be stopped to keep enough water in the streams for the fish. Sanctuary Forest has a great monitoring program that alerts when pools are disconnecting and at that point diversions are shut off. Other ways to determine forbearance dates are with a calendar system – we know the typical dry months and when stream levels start getting low, or with local gauges. Sometimes the type of forbearance system is the landowner’s choice.

How will the State Water Resources Control Board enforce compliance?

Enforcement is limited and driven by complaints and issues. To make anonymous complaints, call (916) 341-5300.

Has there been any discussion of transitioning water rights to the County level?


Can you explain the “first-in-line, first-in-right” theory?

Appropriative right holders have priority dates which determine at what date each year they may begin drawing water. There are junior and senior users, junior rights holders cannot start diverting until senior uses have exercised their entire right. Those with a riparian claim have seniority over those with appropriative rights.

What happens if I think that I have a riparian water right, but I actually don’t?

If you divert water, you should file a Statement of Diversion and Use. The State Water Board will determine whether your riparian claim is valid or not. If it’s not, they will notify you and ask that you either acquire an appropriative right or cease diversion.

Does the length of time you have been diverting affect your claim?

No it does not.

What happens during the processing of my filing? If I am using water now, is there any risk of admitting prior non-compliance in the process of coming into compliance?

If you are actively pursuing a valid basis of right you will be low on the State Water Resource Control Board's enforcement priority list. Their enforcement capacity is limited.

For which permits do we need to file reports, and at what frequency?

Statements of diversion require a report every three years. Permit and license holders file annual reports, and registration requires a report once every five years.

Who sets the fees, and what is preventing them from being raised once we have registered?

The State Water Resources Control Board sets the registration fees; the first-time application is $250, and then $100 every five years. If DFW requires a 1600 permit, there are fees associated with that which are typically minimal and based on the cost of your project. The State Water Resources Control Board fees pay for the maintenance of the program. DFW fees do not bring in a profit for the organization and are a 5 year agreement and can only be increased with your renewal every five years.

How much water can you take with an appropriative right?

The amount of water diverted must be reasonable and beneficial for the use.

What is the difference in time-frame between full appropriated and registration of appropriative right?

There are two forms of appropriative water rights – registration certificates and permits & licenses. The registration program is designed to be efficient and takes roughly 120 days from the time you file to the time you receive your right. An appropriative permit can take 3 – 5 years. If you currently have a valid riparian claim and want to move toward storing winter water, you can dedicate your riparian right to DFW to protect it from appropriation while waiting for your appropriative permit. This action will also move you to the top of the list of applications to be processed.

What kind of permitting is required for rainfall or roof-top catchment and storage?

Division of Water Rights (State) – There is no water right for rainfall catchment or storage. If your rooftop storage is near flowing water, you may need a permit to construct or install the storage. NC Water Quality Control Board (Regional) – There is no general permit for storage of rainwater. If you construct a pond and it requires more than one acre of land be disturbed it requires a permit. There is also a permit program for pond construction in wetland areas.

I received a letter saying that as of January 1, the monthly maximum rate of diversion will become mandatory and precise measurements will be required. What does this mean?

If you are filling for a new statement this year, you are filling for the diversion that took place during the previous year. You need to meet measurement requirements with a measuring device or by indicating that it is not locally cost effective and indicating which alternative methods of measurement you use.

If someone applies for a small domestic use registration and DFW decides they cannot pump during certain times of the year, how long does the property owner have to come into compliance?

This is site specific.

What is the Small Domestic Use Streamlining Opportunities and what is the criteria for self-compliance?

While California’s Drought Emergency declaration is in effect, the Emergency Tank Storage Registration program will enable landowners to register their storage without a 1600 Agreement or a site inspection from CDFW as long as they meet the general criteria which includes filing your riparian and appropriative rights with the State Water Board, utilizing rigid tanks (not bladder tanks), and voluntarily forbearing from pumping or filling water tanks for 60 days. If you are filing because of an enforcement action or because you have already been notified that you are not in compliance with State Water Law, you will not be able to qualify for this streamlining option.

Please see the Process Guide for Registration of Small Domestic Use Appropriation.

Who should I contact if I have additional questions?

For more information about water rights and other requirements related to the diversion and use of water, the following public agencies and organizations can help:

For information on Water Rights:

Mark Matranga, State Water Resources Control Board, Division of Water Rights, (916) 327-3112,
Matt McCarthy, State Water Resources Control Board, Division of Water Rights, (916) 341-5310,

For information on Water Quality:

Bryan McFadin, North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, (707) 576-2751,

For questions about permits to install diversion facilities or other structures in the stream:

California Department of Fish & Wildlife

Jane Arnold, Staff Environmental Scientist (Eureka), (707) 441-5671,