A Brief History of California Water


Big dreams and big ambitions drive California's history. Manifest Destiny, the Gold Rush, epic natural disasters—California seizes every opportunity to move heaven and earth in the name of progress.

Nothing happens without water.


Most of California's population live hundreds of miles from their source of fresh water – but not by accident. When the LA Aqueduct was completed in 1913, it delivered 4 times the amount of water that Los Angeles needed at the time. Owen's Lake was drained to grow Los Angeles, the Hetch Hetchy was dammed to feed San Francisco. These "successes" paved the way for one of the largest water conveyance systems – and thus one of the largest economies – in the world. We built it, and they came. Now we're up against the harsh reality that fresh water is not an infinite resource.


California's response to it's growing cities coupled with deadly floods and long periods of drought was to control it's fresh water with infrastructure, but messing with nature always comes with a cost. 

It took barely 80 years for California to become a state, with growth going into overdrive during the Gold Rush. Upon statehood in 1850, California immediately began building big infrastructure to control water, forming levee and reclamation districts only 10 years later. Water projects large and small followed and continue to this day. But moving water causes conflict, and water issues being brought to the courts started early in our state's history, and are now the status quo.


California has two gigantic water development systems: the California State Water Project and the Federal Central Valley Project. Both use multiple dammed reservoirs to capture and store water, which is then redistributed via rivers and canals, generally from Northern California sources to San Joaquin Valley farms and southern California cities.

Originally conceived by state engineers, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation took over construction of the Central Valley Project in the 1930s because California could not pay for the scheme due to the Great Depression. 

The California State Water Project (SWP) was approved by the legislature in 1959 and bonds for its construction were narrowly approved by California voters in November 1960 (Proposition 1). Former Governor Earl Warren warned there was not water available to supply the SWP – and time has proved him prescient.

The SWP has chronically failed to meet contractual obligations since the 1980s.  Full SWP contract deliveries are predicated on 1960 water availability estimates of anticipated diversions from north state rivers. Diversions from the Middle Fork Eel, the Mad and Van Duzen Rivers did not occur due to their ultimate state and federal designation as Wild and Scenic Rivers.

The Peripheral Canal was part of the original State Water Project plan, but it was defeated in a 1982 vote. Governor Brown is trying to build a similar project known as the Twin Tunnels without a vote of the people.

Both water projects have low priority water rights. They were acquired starting in the 1920s and 1930s, and are thus considered "junior" to more "senior" rights held by many irrigation and water districts in the Central Valley, the City and County of San Francisco, Pacific Gas & Electric Company, Southern California Edison Corporation, and the East Bay Municipal Utilities District (which supplies Mokelumne River water to Alameda and Contra Costa counties).

Water rights vary by state.  In California, there are multiple varieties of water rights, including:

Riparian Rights
Appropriative Rights
Prescriptive Rights
Overlying Rights

The California Supreme Court has established that riparian rights holders have priority for diverting water over most if not all appropriative water rights holders.  Appropriators may only divert water that is “surplus” to that diverted by riparian right holders from any given stream.  Further, there is a seniority system in place for appropriative water rights holders. Those with rights resulting from pre—1914 filing claims have priority over all other appropriative rights holders for diverting and using water. Until recently, their rights have not been subject to review or action by the State Water Board.


For more than four decades, the federal Central Valley Project (CVP) and the State water Project (SWP) have supplied water to growers irrigating approximately 1.3 million acres of drainage—impaired lands on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley and the Tulare Lake Basin.

These lands are naturally contaminated. They formed as an ancient seabed, and as wetlands of the period dried up, toxic elements such as selenium, boron, molybdenum, mercury and arsenic concentrated heavily in the soils and rocks.

When irrigation service provided by the CVP and SWP began in the western San Joaquin Valley and the Tulare Basin, agricultural drainage water concentrated and mobilized these contaminants. This ultimately led to the wholesale poisoning of Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge in 1983.

Little is being done to track the selenium and other toxics mobilized by irrigation of poisoned lands.  The Grasslands Bypass Project has been given a 20—year waiver of selenium water quality objectives to dump toxic farm runoff into a tributary of the San Joaquin River. There are no monitoring requirements by California regulators to determine how much selenium is being dumped into and accumulating in groundwater.


In 1994, state officials and five of the 29 State Water Project (SWP) contractors met secretly in Monterey to resolve water shortage issues. The contractors included the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) and the Kern County Water Agency (KCWA), which together hold contracts for about 75 percent of the state's water, and representatives from Paramount Farming, a private agricultural corporation.

The result of their meeting was the Monterey Amendments to the State Water Project contracts. C-WIN has filed a lawsuit to overturn this latest effort to privatize California’s water.

The conclave was driven by an extended drought from 1987 to 1992.This devastating dry period had caused great financial stress among SWP agricultural contractors, and had provoked significant changes in the SWP's operating principles. Further increasing the contractors’ angst was the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service’s 1993 listing of the Delta smelt as ‘threatened’ under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Drought conditions were so severe in 1991 that SWP deliveries to agricultural contracts were zero. While this was consistent with the principles of the original SWP contracts, the strictures enraged agricultural contractors; they were also distressed by their obligation to maintain payments on their share of the SWP "mortgage." It was the ultimate cost-­‐squeeze: “Entitlements” outlined in the SWP contracts meant little to agricultural contractors when drought restricted deliveries.

Most of the water delivered in 1991 by the State Water Project, for example, was sent to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which largely serves urban water districts south of the Tehachapi Mountains. This reflected a long-­‐standing “urban preference” in state water law and SWP contracts that decreed domestic and industrial water rights holders (such as cities and counties holding the requisite rights) would receive water first during droughts, prior to the claims of agricultural water users. The urban preference was established in the belief that it is more problematic to interrupt urban water deliveries than agricultural deliveries. The Monterey Amendments eliminated the urban preference, greatly imperiling secure water supplies to California’s cities.

As part of the Monterey Agreement, the Department of Water Resources turned over a state asset, the Kern Water Bank to the Kern County Water Agency.  As noted above, the Kern Water Bank is a 20,000-acre alluvial fan that was established as “drought insurance” for SWP urban contractors. Water can be injected or withdrawn from this aquifer easily. The state transferred the bank in exchange for the retirement of 45,000 acre-feet of “paper water”. In other words, the state gave up a valuable public asset for “undelivered” water to Kern that didn’t even exist—except on paper or in computer files.

One day after DWR transferred the Kern Water Bank to the Kern County Water Agency, the Agency turned over a majority interest in the Kern Water Bank to Paramount Farms, a private corporation owned by Stewart and Lynda Resnick, as part of a newly constituted public-private partnership called the Kern Water Bank Authority. This privatization of the Kern Water Bank allowed the new owners to buy cheap “surplus" water, store it underground, and then sell it to the highest bidder for gargantuan returns. The Resnicks have reaped millions of dollars in profits since seizing the water bank, all courtesy of California’s water ratepayers.

In March 2014 as a result of C-WIN’s lawsuit, Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Timothy Frawley struck down the environmental review conducted for the Kern Water Bank, ruling it did not adequately address the full impacts of the water bank’s operation by San Joaquin Valley agribusiness interests. Further legal action is expected.


The operation of these enormous water projects is a primary factor in the collapse of Delta fish populations in the San Francisco Bay-Delta estuary. The idea that millions of acre-feet of water can be exported without massive impacts, and that such a system is sustainable, is premised on magical thinking by state water industry officials and regulators.

In 2012, the California Water Impact Network (C-­WIN) completed a first of its kind analysis of Central Valley water availability compared to water rights claims and the priority of those claims. The analysis determined that there is an average of 29 million acre-feet of consumptive water available in the Delta system in an average year, but there are 153.7 million acre feet of consumptive water rights claims for that water. C-WIN’s conclusion that consumptive water rights claims are over five times more than available water supplies for the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers was corroborated by UC Davis in 2014. The CVP and SWP have junior water right claims and clearly cannot provide full contract deliveries, especially during drought because other water users have superior water rights.

It is clear why Governor Earl Warren made the statement that there was inadequate water for the State Water Project.  The water simply isn’t there to fulfill all of the promises.


There are real solutions to this very serious problem.

  • Ending “paper water,” which is water granted to claimants that does not exist. Water rights claims in California exceed the amount of available water by a factor of 5.5.
  • Reinstatement of the “urban preference” in State Water Project (SWP) contracts. If the urban preference were reinstated, Southern California and Silicon Valley SWP allocations would increase 25% over 2015 deliveries at the expense of corporate growers—including Brown friend and contributor Stewart Resnick, who irrigates 120,000 acres of water-intensive nuts, citrus and pomegranates with cheap state water.
  • Prohibit the planting of permanent crops in areas with unreliable water, groundwater overdraft and selenium-contaminated soils. Growing almonds in the western San Joaquin Valley and the Tulare and Kern Basins requires four acre feet of water per acre compared to the two acre feet per acre needed by almonds in the eastern Sacramento Valley, which has greater rainfall and aquifers that contain sufficient water.
  • Return the Kern Water Bank to public ownership. This project originally was designed as emergency drought protection for Southern California cities and the Silicon Valley. But the Monterey Amendments, a secret agreement between the State and corporate agriculture, transferred control of the Kern Water Bank to Brown contributor Stewart Resnick.
  • Prohibit flood irrigation, substituting drip and mist systems. This move alone could save millions of acre-feet of water a year.
  • Require agricultural water districts to provide information on aquifer pumping, groundwater levels and groundwater quality. The lack of such record keeping encourages overdraft.
  • Require permitting and full environmental review of new water bottling facilities, including a planned Crystal Geyser plant in Mount Shasta that will pump thousands of gallons of water daily from the springs that constitute the headwaters of the Sacramento River.
  • Ban fracking and the subterranean disposal of fracking wastes. Fracking depletes California’s already overdrafted aquifers, and threatens widespread contamination of our remaining groundwater reserves.
  • Compel the State Water Resources Board to adjudicate water rights in the Sacramento and San Joaquin basins, removing paper water from water rights permits and contracts.
  • Retire 1.3 million acres of San Joaquin Valley poisoned lands from irrigated agriculture. The landowners could convert to solar farms, reaping substantial profits and providing the state with much-needed sustainable energy.
  • Eliminate agricultural water subsidies.
  • Encourage limited environmentally sensitive ocean desal for coastal communities to free up water for inland communities.
  • Extensively fund conservation, recycling and stormwater capture.


    LA Times Photo

    LA Times Photo

    Source: Water Education Foundation

    1769 First permanent Spanish settlements established. Water rights established by Spanish law.

    1848 Gold discovered on the American River. Treaty of Guadalupe signed, California ceded from Mexico, California republic established.

    1850 California admitted to Union. Construction begins on Delta levees and channels.

    1860 Legislature authorizes the formation of levee and reclamation districts.

    1862  Major flood in Sacramento Valley inundates new city.

    1880 First flood control plan for the Sacramento Valley developed by State Engineer William Hammond Hall.

    1884 Federal Circuit Court decision in Woodruff v. North Bloomfield requires termination of hydraulic mining debris discharges into California rivers.

    1886 California Supreme Court decision in Lux v. Haggin reaffirms legal preeminence of riparian rights, upheld again 40 years later.

    1892 Conservationist John Muir founds Sierra Club.

    1901 First California deliveries from the Colorado River made to farmland in the Imperial Valley.

    1902 U.S. Bureau of Reclamation established by the Reclamation Act of 1902.

    1905 First bond issue for the city of Los Angeles’ Owens Valley project; second bond issue in 1907 approved for actual construction.

    Colorado River flooding diverts the river into Imperial Valley, forming the Salton Sea.

    1908 City of San Francisco’s filings for Hetch Hetchy project approved.

    1913 Los Angeles Aqueduct begins service.

    1920 Col. Robert B. Marshall of the U.S. Geological Survey proposes statewide plan for water conveyance and storage.

    1922 Colorado River Compact appropriates 7.5 million acre-feet per year to each of the river’s two basins.

    1923 Hetch Hetchy Valley flooded to produce water supply for San Francisco despite years of protest by John Muir and other conservationists. East Bay Municipal Utility District formed.

    1928 Congress passes Boulder Canyon Act, authorizing construction of Boulder (Hoover) Dam and other Colorado River facilities.

    Federal government assumes most costs of the Sacramento Valley Flood Control System with passage of the Rivers and Harbors Act.

    California Constitution amended to require that all water use be “reasonable and beneficial.”

    St. Francis Dam collapses, flooding the Santa Clarita Valley, killing more than 450 people.

    Worst drought of the 20th century begins; ends in 1934, establishing benchmark for water project storage and transfer capacity of all major water projects.

    1931 State Water Plan published, outlining utilization of water resources on a statewide basis.

    County of Origin Law passed, guaranteeing counties the right to reclaim water from an exporter if it is needed in the area of origin.

    1933 Central Valley Project (CVP) Act passed.

    1934 Construction starts on All-American Canal in the Imperial Valley (first deliveries in 1941) and on Parker Dam on the Colorado River.

    1937 Rivers and Harbors Act authorizes construction of initial CVP features by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

    1940 MWD of Southern California’s Colorado River Aqueduct completed; first deliveries in 1941.

    1944 Mexican-U.S. Treaty guarantees Mexico 1.5 million acre-feet per year from Colorado River.

    1945 State Water Resources Control Board created.

    1951 State authorizes the Feather River Project Act (later to become the State Water Project).

    First deliveries from Shasta Dam to the San Joaquin Valley.

    1955 Flood in the Sacramento Valley kills 38 people.

    1957 California Water Plan published.

    1959 Delta Protection Act resolves some issues of legal boundaries, salinity control and water export.

    1960 Burns-Porter Act ratified by voters; $1.75 million bond issue to assist statewide water development.

    1963 Arizona v. California lawsuit decided by U.S. Supreme Court, allocating 2.8 million acre-feet of Colorado River water per year to Arizona.

    1964 Partially completed Oroville Dam helps save Sacramento Valley from flooding.

    1966 Construction begins on New Melones Dam on the Stanislaus River after 20 years of controversy over the reservoir’s size and environmental impacts; completed in 1978.

    1968 Congress authorizes Central Arizona Project to deliver 1.5 million acre-feet of Colorado River water a year to Arizona.

    Congress passes Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

    1970 Passage of the National Environmental Quality Act, California Environmental Quality Act and California Endangered Species Act.

    1972 California Legislature passes Wild and Scenic Rivers Act preserving the north coast’s remaining free-flowing rivers from development.

    Federal Clean Water Act (CWA) passed.

    1973 First SWP deliveries to Southern California.

    1974 Congress passes Safe Drinking Water Act.

    1978 State Board issues Water Rights Decision 1485 setting Delta water quality standards.

    1980 State-designated wild and scenic rivers placed under federal Act’s protection.

    1982 Proposition 9, the Peripheral Canal package, overwhelmingly defeated in statewide vote.

    Reclamation Reform Act raises from 160 acres to 960 acres the amount of land a farmer can own and still receive low-cost federal water.

    1983 California Supreme Court in National Audubon Society v. Superior Court rules that the public trust doctrine applies to Los Angeles’ diversion from tributary streams of Mono Lake.

    Dead and deformed waterfowl discovered at Kesterson Reservoir, pointing to problems of selenium-tainted agricultural drainage water.

    1986 Ruling by State Court of Appeals (Racanelli Decision) directs State Board to consider all beneficial uses, including instream needs, of Delta water when setting water quality standards.

    Passage of Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act (Proposition 65) prohibiting discharge of toxic chemicals into state waters.

    Coordinated Operation Agreement for CVP and SWP operations in the Delta signed.

    1987 State Board’s Bay-Delta proceedings begin to revise D-1485 water quality standards.

    1989 In a separate challenge to Los Angeles’ Mono Basin water rights, an appellate court holds that fish are a public trust resource in California Trout v. State Water Resources Control Board.

    MWD and Imperial Irrigation District agree that MWD will pay for agricultural water conservation projects and receive the water conserved.

    1991 MOU signed to implement urban water conservation programs.

    Inyo County and Los Angeles agree to jointly manage Owens Valley water, ending 19 years of litigation.

    West Coast’s first municipal sea water desalination plant opens on Catalina Island.

    1992 Congress approves landmark CVP Improvement Act.

    1993 Federal court rules in Natural Resource Defense Council v. Patterson that the CVP must conform to state law requiring release of flows for fishery preservation below dams.

    Arizona’s CAP declared complete by the federal government.

    1994 State Board amends Los Angeles’ water rights licenses to Mono Lake.

    Bay-Delta Accord sets interim Delta water quality.

    CALFED Bay-Delta Program planning initiated.

    1995 State Board adopts new water quality plan for the Delta and begins hearings on water rights.

    1997 New Year’s storms cause state’s second most devastating flood of the century.

    SWP’s Santa Barbara Aqueduct completed.

    1999 Sacramento splittail minnow and spring-run Chinook salmon added to federal endangered species list.

    2000 CALFED Record of Decision signed by state and federal agencies.

    2001  Klamath Project irrigation water crisis.

    2002 Voters approve Proposition 50, a $3.44 billion bond issue to fund improvements in water quality and reliability.

    2003 Interior Secretary orders California’s Colorado River allocation limited to 4.4 million acre-feet; water users sign Quantification Settlement Agreement.

    Paterno v. State of California ruling by third Appellate District Count determined the state of California liable for potentially hundreds of millions of dollars because state accepted levee without any measures to ensure it met design standards and then failed in 1986 flood.

    SWP contractors, DWR and environmental groups settle lawsuit over the Monterey Amendment.

    U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service removes Sacramento splittail from federal ESA list of threatened species.

    2004 State Board initiates review of 1995 Water Quality Control Plan.

    Congress approves long-awaited legislation to re-authorize CALFED.

    2005 Scientific surveys of the Delta and Suisun Marsh reveal ongoing, sweeping population crash of native pelagic fish.

    Legislation directs DWR to evaluate the future of the Delta.

    2006 Coalition of fishing groups sue DWR, alleging the agency never obtained proper legal authority to take endangered fish while exporting water.

    Legal settlement among a coalition of environmental and fishing groups, the U.S. Departments of the Interior and Commerce and the Friant Water Users Authority ending an 18 year legal battle over claims to release water from Friant Dam to maintain a live stream for fish to the Merced River.

    2007 SWP pumping operations shut down to protect endangered Delta Smelt (Wanger Decision).

    DWR estimates that Delta levees are vulnerable to massive failure if major earthquake occurs.

    Seven Colorado River states agree to new drought rules and shortage criteria.

    Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force releases plan. Other Delta planning processes continue.

    2008 DWR initiates the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) EIS/EIR.

    Governor declares statewide drought after second dry/critical year.

    2008 Public Policy institute of California issues report saying a peripheral canal is best Delta conveyance for meeting co-equal goals of healthy Delta ecosystem and water supply reliability.

    2009 U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger rules federal government did not analyze impact of Delta Smelt protection rules on water exporters. Gov. Schwarzenegger signs a comprehensive water package designed to achieve the co-equal goals.

    San Joaquin River Restoration Act passed by Congress.

    USGS report finds that about 60 million acre-feet of groundwater has been lost in the San Joaquin Valley since 1961.

    2010 Judge Wanger rules the federal government failed to consider impacts to water users when it restricted pumping from Delta to protect Chinook spring-run salmon and other fish.

    Final Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement and the Klamath Hydroelectric settlement Agreement were signed. The implementation was contingent on authorizing legislation, funding and environmental review.

    2012 Central Valley Flood Protection Plan adopted by state flood board.

    Bureau of Reclamation releases Colorado River Basin Water Supply and Demand study that projects a range of future water supply and demand imbalances for the seven Colorado River states.

    Monumental five year agreement, Minute 319, sets stage for improved Colorado River water supply reliability between the United States and Mexico.

    The Legislature approves a bill to take the water bond off the 2012 ballot and put it on the 2014 ballot.

    2013 State Water Resources Control Board continues update of flow objectives as recommended by Delta Plan.

    Delta Plan is adopted by the Delta Stewardship Council.

    The final chapters of the Bay Delta Conservation Plan (BDCP) are released in May by Governor Jerry Brown’s administration proposing long-term Delta restoration and promoting a more reliable statewide water supply through the creation of twin tunnels to move water beneath the Delta to the existing state and federal pumping facilities. Public comment began in October.

    2014 Gov. Jerry Brown signs legislation creating local agencies to oversee groundwater pumping, making California the last state in the West to regulate groundwater.

    Brown signs a $7.5 billion water bond that will go before California voters in November. The bond contains for $2.7 billion for new storage, $1.49 billion for watershed restoration, $810 million for water reliability projects, $520 million for water quality projects, $725 million for water recycling, $900 million for groundwater cleanup and $395 million for flood management.

    California voters approve the water bond with about 67 percent of the vote.

    2015 In the midst of a four-year drought, Gov. Jerry Brown orders first-ever, statewide water reductions aimed at urban California on April 1, 2015.

    2017 A crater in Oroville Dam’s concrete spillway forces DWR to temporarily halt releases from the reservoir in order to inspect the damage. Water poured over the emergency spillway for the first time in the dam’s history, eroding the dirt hillside. Fearing a catastrophe, officials ordered that people evacuate from the city of Oroville and surrounding environs as a precautionary measure.