Special Water Supply Edition: California Environmental Law & Policy Update 9.22.23

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Lawmakers approve plan to strengthen oversight of California water rights

Bullet Los Angeles Times - September 9

California legislators have passed a bill articulating the scope of the State Water Resources Control Board’s authority to investigate water rights. Senate Bill 389, which will go to Governor Gavin Newsom’s desk for a final decision, expressly authorizes the Board to investigate all surface water rights claims — including riparian rights and pre-1914 rights — and to determine whether the rights are valid. Until now, regulators haven’t had clear authority to investigate the water rights of some of the biggest water users. These senior water right holders, with claims dating to before 1914, use roughly a third of the water that is diverted, on average, from the state’s rivers and streams. They include cities, individual landowners, and agricultural irrigation districts.


Colorado River water cuts will ease in 2024, despite long-term challenges

Bullet PBS – August 15

Federal officials on August 15 said that releases from Lake Mead in 2023 to Colorado River water users are expected to be the lowest in 30 years, the result of a wet winter and conservation efforts in Arizona, Nevada, California, and Mexico. The reductions are a return to what was announced in 2021, a “Tier 1” shortage. The announcement is just one piece of various water conservation plans already in place or being negotiated. Earlier this year, Arizona, California, and Nevada released a plan to conserve an additional 3 million acre-feet of water through 2026 in exchange for $1.2 billion from the federal government. The Interior Department is expected to release its analysis of the proposal this fall.

Supreme Court ruling complicates Navajo Nation’s fight for more water

Bullet Associated Press – June 23

Already facing some of the most severe water scarcity in the drought-stricken Southwest, the Navajo Nation now has to contend with a June Supreme Court ruling that will make securing water even harder for the 170,000 enrolled tribal members who live on its reservation. The tribe argued that the “permanent home” promised in treaties the U.S. government signed more than 150 years ago includes a right to some of the water crossing the reservation. The question before the Court was whether the federal government had to quantify the tribe’s water needs and come up with a plan to meet them. However, the Court held in a 5-4 decision that the 1868 treaty “contains no language imposing a duty on the United States to take affirmative steps to secure water for the Tribe.”

As cost for Doheny desalination plant grows, California aims to streamline more projects

Bullet The Orange County Register – September 1

The state’s supply of drinkable ocean water could jump 10% in five years if the Doheny Desalination Plant in Dana Point becomes a reality. The project, which is being developed by South Coast Water District, has reached a few minor milestones since the California Coastal Commission approved it last fall. Yet other targets have been nudged back, and the projected cost of water from the project has increased. A team led by the State Water Resources Control Board spent the past year developing recommendations for desalination plants in part based on the Doheny proposal. If such recommendations are applied, the group’s report says future desalination projects “can be permitted relatively quickly,” with fewer risks to the environment or local communities. Board staff released a draft plan this summer and plan to publish a final set of recommended best practices this fall.

From sewage to drinking glass: California’s plan to recycle water

Bullet KQED – August 3

Californians could drink highly purified sewage water that is piped directly into drinking water supplies for the first time under proposed rules unveiled this summer by state water officials. The draft rules, released on July 21, face a gauntlet of public comment, a hearing, and peer review by another panel of experts, before being finalized. The State Water Resources Control Board is required by law to vote on them by the end of December, though they can extend the deadline if necessary. If approved, the rules would likely go into effect next April.

New California law bolsters groundwater recharge as strategic defense against climate change

Bullet Water Education Foundation – September 7

A new but little-known change in California law designating aquifers as “natural infrastructure” promises to unleash a flood of public funding for projects that increase the state’s supply of groundwater. The change is buried in a sweeping state budget-related law, enacted in July, that also makes it easier for property owners and water managers to divert floodwater for storage underground. The classification of aquifers could have a far-reaching effect in California where restoring depleted aquifers has become a strategic defense against climate change — an insurance against more frequent droughts and more variable precipitation.

How Hilary’s historic rains impacted most parched cities

Bullet San Francisco Chronicle – August 24

Tropical Storm Hilary rolled through Southern California in late August, bringing widespread rain and flooding to the Mojave Desert. On August 24, the U.S. Drought Monitor released its weekly update showing the impact of those rains: Nearly all of Imperial, San Bernardino, Riverside, and Inyo counties are now drought free. It’s a remarkable turnaround compared with a year ago, when varying levels of drought plagued 99.76% of California. Now only 1.38% of California is experiencing moderate or worse drought, the lowest level of drought since February 2020.

Can alfalfa survive a fight over Colorado River water?

Bullet E&E News – September 8

The drought in the western U.S. has put a spotlight on the choices farmers are making, including what they grow and how they attempt to save water. Alfalfa — a water-intensive crop that’s turned into hay to feed cattle — in particular could take center stage as state and federal leaders rethink how to allocate Colorado River water. Certain state officials and conservation advocates have called for curbing the crop’s production, whether discouraging its use through federal regulation or increasing the costs of water used to raise it. At the same time, farmers and agricultural groups have gone on the defensive — showcasing the crop’s place at the base of a food production pyramid — and defending their right to grow what makes the most financial sense.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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