Water Transfers: Upending California's Water Rights System

Shasta Reservoir, a key source of water for water transfers south of the Delta

Courtesy of US Bureau of Reclamation

Water transfers are often characterized as a "flexible" way to ensure that water-short water agencies get supplies they want. Water transfers are premised on the existence of a "water market" in which trades or exchanges of money for access to water supplies are arranged.

At the California Water Impact Network, we view water transfers as an troubling method for undercutting the state's water rights system and keep pressure up on California's rivers, streams and aquifers. Transfers help ensure that water "flows uphill to money" by giving legal to large amounts of capital in water allocation decisions, especially in dry years.

Transfers are often grouped by the California Department of Water Resources and the US Bureau of Reclamation into "water bank" programs that rely on the sale by "willing sellers" in the Sacramento River Basin north of the Bay-Delta Estuary to dry buyers south of the Delta like the Kern County Water Agency and the Westlands Water District. Most recently in 2010 and 2011, the US Bureau of Reclamation took the lead on a water transfer program that C-WIN and other organizations successfully stopped via litigation in 2009.

In these "drought water bank" programs, water transfers are arranged by having willing sellers give up their surface water supplies and instead substitute groundwater pumped from below to continue their crop production. In the Sacramento River Basin, this is potentially catastrophic since the rivers and streams throughout the basin can suddenly lose flow when groundwater supporting that flow is instead pumped out of the ground.  Wells also go dry when groundwater levels suddenly drop.  

Impacts to groundwater levels in the Tuscan Aquifer from groundwater exports was seen in 1994, following seven years of low annual precipitation.  Western Canal Water District and other irrigation districts in Butte, Glenn and Colusa counties exported 105,000 af of water extracted from the Tuscan aquifers to buyers outside of the area. This early experiment in the conjunctive use of the groundwater resources caused a significant and immediate adverse impact on the environment. 

Until the time of the 1994 water transfers, groundwater levels had dropped but the aquifers had sustained the normal demands of domestic and agricultural users. The water districts’ 1994 extractions, however, lowered groundwater levels throughout the Durham and Cherokee areas of eastern Butte County. The water level fell and the water quality deteriorated in the wells serving the City of Durham.  Irrigation wells failed on several orchards in the Durham area. One farm never recovered from the loss of its crop and later entered into bankruptcy. Although the districts’ groundwater substitution was in the deep levels of the aquifer, residential wells dried up in the shallow zone of the aquifer as far north as Durham.

The California Water Impact Network partnered with the Butte Environmental Council and the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance to win a lawsuit against the Drought Water Bank.  You can review the judge's order here.


See our 2010 Comment Letter to the Bureau and the California Department of Resources on the 2010-2011 Water Transfer Program.

See our 2012 Comment Letter to the Bureau regarding the 2012 Water Transfer Program by the San Joaquin River Exchange Contractors.