Governor Signs Senator Allen’s Legislation Strengthening California’s Antiquated Water Rights System

SACRAMENTO – Yesterday, Governor Gavin Newsom signed SB 389, legislation authored by Senator Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica) to address a century-old loophole in California’s water rights system. The new law, which takes effect January 1, authorizes the State Water Resources Control Board to verify the validity and scope of claims to senior water rights in the state.

“Through SB 389, our State Water Board gains an important tool to carry out its sacred task as climate change increasingly threatens water availability,” said Senator Allen, who chairs the Senate Environmental Quality Committee and co-chairs the California Legislative Environmental Caucus. “This law takes a long-overdue step towards ensuring effective operation of our water rights system by certifying the Board’s authority to enforce state law regardless of the age of a claimed water right. I am grateful to the Governor for supporting this monumental effort.”

Because senior water rights preceded the establishment of California’s current system, they are exempt from the same level of oversight given to junior rights, those that are subject to the State Water Board’s permitting requirement. Further, senior water rights are some of the most coveted due to California’s First-in-Time, First-in-Right principle, meaning that not only have these claims never been verified, but they also benefit from less scrutiny and curtailment requirements in times of drought.

This has created significant challenge for the State Water Board to accurately manage water use allocations given the need to account for and prioritize claims to senior water rights that may be inflated, inaccurate, or unlawful. To address this glaring inequity, SB 389 grants the State Water Board the ability to investigate individual water rights claims to verify its basis of right, request relevant information from claimants, and enforce against illegal diversions where appropriate.

Through several months of discussion with entities claiming senior water rights, Senator Allen negotiated a solution that both recognized their concerns while moving California’s antiquated water rights system in a more equitable direction. As such, SB 389 reflects a significant step in protecting one of our most valuable resources through bringing competing interests to the table and finding common ground.

SB 389 was coauthored by Assemblymembers Bauer-Kahan and Wicks and sponsored by the Planning and Conservation League while boasting support from a broad coalition of environmental advocacy organizations.

# # #

Ben Allen represents the 24th State Senate District, which consists of the Westside, Hollywood, South Bay, and Santa Monica Mountains communities of Los Angeles County.