Current Campaign: Paper Water

End the practice of promising water that doesn’t exsist.


Water that exists as water rights claims in legal documents but not in the real world is known as "paper water". There is far more water promised “on paper” to stakeholders than there is in California’s water ways.

The fact that this discrepancy has languished for decades is a sign of magical thinking on the part of water industry officials and regulators in California. It's far past time for this practice to stop.

For every acre-foot of real water in the Central Valley watershed, 8.4 acre-feet of water on paper has been promised by the state where only 1 acre-foot may actually be diverted, according to the State Water Resources Control Board.

The historical agencies of California responsible for post-1914 appropriative water rights vastly overcommitted water from the Bay-Delta’s Central Valley watershed streams. In September 2008, the State Water Resources Control Board reported to the Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Task Force that while the Central Valley watershed of California has an average annual runoff of 29 million acre-feet, the face value of water rights granted by the state to appropriative water right holders amounted to 245 million acre-feet.


  • When water rights issued for a watershed exceed the water that is actually available.

  • When water service contract allocations within a project prove to be consistently unreliable.

The existence of paper water arouses conflict with holders of riparian rights, such as between the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project with Delta riparian farmers.


California’s water policy is founded on a decades-old water deficit, one that will only be compounded by Jerry Brown's Twin Tunnels project —a boondoggle scheme that would attempt to meet unsustainable contractual obligations by draining the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta of fresh water. The real issue here is not about how water is conveyed, it's about whether there is enough water for more conveyance or storage.

When California officials built the State Water Project in 1960, they knew it would run out of water by 1981. To make up the shortfall, the state over-appropriated water from the Delta.


Paper Water is built into almost every major water project in California.

The Central Valley Project
The State Water Project
The Trinity & Sacramento Basins
The San Joaquin River Basin


Our efforts to expose paper water and eliminate it are well documented, in the public record and on-going. Our Water Availability Analysis for Trinity, Sacramento, and San Joaquin River Basins Tributary to the Bay/Delta Estuary was entered into testimony at SWRCB workshops in 2012. C-WIN published the first quantification analysis of paper water in the Central Valley in 2013. A 2014 UC Davis report corroborated our findings. In 2017, our groundbreaking Santa Barbara report was entered into testimony at State Water Board hearings.