CA Water Policy History

In order to better understand California’s water history, mapping out the policies which helped create today’s water system seemed like a good place to start. Below is a short-list of state and federal laws and decisions that have impacted the state.

1850 – Act of 1850, or “Pueblo Policy” influencing development of water rights (Los Angeles)
1850 – Public trust doctrine – hold its waters in trust for public uses.
1902 – [Federal] Reclamation Act – (1903 LA river runs out of water)
1913/14 – California first began regulating water diversions. – of “public interest” or “beneficial purposes”. State Board is guided by “public interest” for permits
1920 – [Federal] Federal Power Act of 1920 (FPA), amended 1935, now Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC): Hydropower. Before 1920, 41 dams existed in CA; today there are over 1400.
1928 – CA amendment that supports riparian (English Common law) and appropriative rights (Miner’s diverting for ‘beneficial use’ — “first in time, first in right” principles). This is the backbone of most Western states and farming.
1933 – [Federal] Central Valley Project – Federal water management in state of California. Provides irrigational and municipal water to water-poor San-Joaquin Valley (many dams built including Shasta dam)
1935 – [Supreme Court] California/Oregon Power Company v. Beaver/Portland Cement Company. State law is the source of water rights. (Hoover dam is completed)
1943 – California adopts a water code. Municipal and drinking has highest priority, followed by agricultural by irrigation. Watershed areas have priority (where water originates)
1956 – [Federal] Water Pollution Control Act (1956) – originally 1948 but reupped – matching grants for sewage treatment plant construction! From the book, Water 4.0 – “By 1972, fully 98% of the country’s urban population was served by sewage treatment plants.”
1960 – California State Water Project (SWP). The state water management project makes deliveries to two-thirds of California’s population. It is maintained and operated by the California Department of Water Resources. 70% for urban users and 30% to agriculture.
1970 – [Federal] California Endangered Species Act (CESA)
1970 – [Federal] California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) – requires development projects to demonstrate a reasonable likelihood of obtaining necessary water supplies as a condition for their approval. EIR (environmental impact report) must describe and analyze the project’s ability to acquire water supplies and the project’s effect on the supplies, because the EIR’s analysis of the project’s environmental effects would otherwise be incomplete. Must show short-term and long-term supplies
1972 – [Federal] Clean Water Act (CWA). Authority over discharge of pollutants. Federal projects must comply with state water quality standards.
1973 – [Federal] Endangered Species Act.
1974 – [Federal] Safe Drinking Water Act. Requires utilities to test for 91 contaminants in water. (amendments 1986, 1996)
1977 – State Water Resources Control Board cuts/curtails water supply. (drought in 1977)
1978 – [Supreme Court] California vs. United States – “federal government must comply with state laws both in acquiring water rights-whether by appropriation, purchase or condemnation.”
1983 – Urban Water Management Planning Act (CA), requires water supply agencies to prepare an Urban Water Management Plan describing the availability of the agency’s water supplies for future urban growth.
1992 – [Federal] Central Valley Project Improvement Act, alleviate some environmental problems associated with CVP. e.g. 800,000 acre-feet of water-to fish, wildlife and habitat purposes in the Delta.
1992 – [Federal] Energy Policy Act – water conservation, which includes mandates for plumbing fixture efficiency standards. 1.6 gallons per toilet flush, showerheads 2.5 gallons per minute.
2002 – California SB 211, for subdivision maps, must impose a condition requiring that a “sufficient water supply” is available for the project.
2007 – [Federal] Delta smelt (fish) protection (Sacramento San Joaquin Valley) – water delivery reduction by as much as 1/3 in these areas.
2015 – State Water Resources Control Board cuts water supply (24%) due to drought – Jerry Brown

A huge thank you to Jon Ashley at the University of Virginia Law Library.

– California Water Board.
– Medina, Jennifer. “California Cuts Farmers’ Share of Scant Water.” NYTimes. June 12, 2015. last accessed September 8, 2015.
– Sedlak, David L. Water 4.0: The Past, Present, and Future of the World’s Most Vital Resource.
– Walston, Roderick E. “California Water Law: Historical Origins to the Present.” Whittier Law Review. vol. 29 (2007-2008). pp. 765-829.