Jim Canaday

Water Rights 101

Recorded: March 14, 2013

Do you have an interest in learning about water rights in California? Jim Canaday, a former California State Water Board Senior Environmental Scientist, explains the three kinds of water rights in California.

A defender of the public trust in terms of fish and water, Jim Canaday is a nationally recognized expert and has taught many natural resource professionals about water law, water rights, and the water regulatory environment in California. He taught for almost 30 years at American River College in Sacramento. As a Lecturer he has taught upper division and graduate courses at CSU Sacramento, UC Davis and UC Cooperative Extension. He has been a presenter at many conferences and symposia in the west on natural resource issues.

Jim is a retired Senior Environmental Scientist for the California State Water Resources Control Board (State Water Board). He retired from this position in 2007.  In this capacity, he participated in many complex water rights decisions by the State Water Board. Most notably, Jim was the lead scientist-project manager for the State Water Board’s 1994 public trust decision that ordered the City of Los Angeles to reduce its diversions from the Mono Basin and established protective lake elevations while ordering restoration of the stream and waterfowl habitats in the Mono Basin. He has worked on the Mono Lake issues for 20 years prior to his retirement. He oversaw the State Water Board ordered restoration activities in the Mono Basin until he retired.

Mr. Canaday has received numerous conservation awards from: California Trout, the Golden Trout Award and Streamkeeper Award; American Fisheries Society (Cal Neva Chapter); the Sierra Nevada Alliance; and the Mono Lake Committee – Defender of the Trust. He has received commendations from: American Whitewater and the State Water Resources Control Board.

Also, Jim has a life-long interest in John Muir’s life, his philosophy and legacy. He taught a college course on the “Life and Legacy of John Muir”. He has given lectures on John Muir to audiences at colleges.

Jim Canaday:    That first and most senior water right is a riparian right, and a riparian right is enjoyed because you have the river, stream or lake or spring on your property.  And that right never diminished, it’s always there, it’s a correlative right.  If it’s like a river or a stream, other riparian owners also have a right to that water.  So when the water is in short supply under a riparian claim, everyone has to share the water, there are no seniors in the riparian claim.

The second type of water right is what we call a pre-1914.  The new water law that’s managed, that we work under now started in 1914 so everything before that, we call pre-14 water rights.  Those are made by claim, they don’t have permits and the State Water Board, my agency, doesn’t manage those water rights.  Again, they’re junior to the riparian right.

Then we have the modern water right, which you go to the water board, you file a project.  If the project is approved or granted, then you have the issue of permit and then you have a certain amount of time to put the water you’ve received to full beneficial use.  And when that is done, then the state will come out and they’ll give you a license for that quantity of water, that place of use and that purpose of use.

Just in water rights alone, permits and licenses, there’s probably 35,000 permits.  So it’s not surprising that water in places of California have been over allocated over the years.  But part of the problem is, is because we have these three different types of rights.

The riparian right, the state water board doesn’t have control over, only a court does if there’s a challenge, and likewise for the pre-1914 right.  The state doesn’t have any authority over those unless they can prove that there’s waste and unreasonable use.  If they’re wasting the water or not putting it to a beneficial use, then the state can challenge that part of the water right.  But other than that, there’s no control over those two types of rights.

We now, you know, recognize as a beneficial use that water can be put to is for fisheries, management, spawning and habitat, which would include water for water fowl.  So that’s recognized; however, there’s competition for that same drop of water and that’s municipal uses, agricultural uses and then these other types of in stream uses or, you know, beneficial uses for wildlife habitat.  So there’s this competition going on and of course the history is, is that municipal water in California agriculture, because it drives that economy, the water, used to be and still to a large degree is the greatest purpose of use as recognized by the state.