Center for Law, Energy & the Environment Publications


Addressing Institutional Vulnerabilities in California’s Drought Water Allocation, Part 1: Water Rights Administration and Oversight During Major Statewide Droughts, 1976–2016

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California droughts are likely to become more frequent, longer, and more intense in the future, posing increasing challenges for water management, and raising the stakes for effective drought response. This project aims to help state water governance and decision-making structures adapt to this changing climatic reality.

The State Water Resources Control Board (Board) has significant responsibilities for California water rights administration and oversight, and the decisions it makes affect how scarce water resources are allocated among different human and environmental uses during droughts. We analyzed the strategies the Board used for water rights administration and oversight during the last four major statewide droughts, in water years 1976–1977, 1987–1992, 2007–2009, and 2012– 2016. The Board employed an array of different drought response strategies that varied in depth and breadth from drought to drought. We discuss thirteen types of strategies organized into four broad categories: (1) addressing urgent water right requests, (2) providing oversight of existing diversions, (3) providing oversight of water use by end users, and (4) cross-cutting strategies that support or complement strategies in the first three groups. The Board engaged in the greatest breadth and depth of strategies during the recent drought.

Despite some significant and creative in-drought efforts by the Board and others, which led to positive developments during and immediately following each drought, relatively little proactive preparation for drought-specific water rights administration and oversight appears to have occurred between droughts. Instead, our research suggests the Board developed its drought responses on a largely ad hoc basis in the midst of each drought emergency, with varying degrees of success. We conclude that more proactive planning and preparation would improve the Board’s future drought responses, making them more transparent, predictable, timely, and effective. A companion report in this volume builds on this analysis with specific recommendations