This brochure is intended as an introductory guide to California water right law for smaller water users that meet their own water needs without relying on a larger entity to deliver water to them. Typically, these will be rural residents or farmers who divert water from wells, springs, or streams located on or near their property. While these types of small-scale water use are common in California, the legal rights and obligations surrounding them can be rather complex, largely because California recognizes a number of different types of water rights.
The type of water right needed to allow a given water use depends on several factors including the source from which the water is taken, how the water is to be used, and where it is to be used. Adding to this complexity, some types of water rights are regulated by the State Water Resources Control Board (the “Water Board”), while others are not. In some cases, a water user may already have the necessary water right and not realize it. In other cases, the user may be able to modify the proposed water use to fit within an existing right, or else obtain a new water right from the Water Board.
The following discussion of California water law is organized around helping small water users answer a basic practical question: Do I have a water right covering my existing or proposed water use, and if not, do I need to obtain one from the Water Board? While this brochure is intended to provide a helpful approach to that question, it is not intended as legal advice. Water users are encouraged to seek the advice of a qualified attorney. They may also consult with Water Board staff by calling (916) 341-5300.