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Water Rights

The Santa Cruz County General Plan contains an objective to protect and restore in-stream flows to ensure a full range of beneficial uses including recreation, fish and wildlife habitat and visual amenities as part of an ecosystem-based approach to watershed management. County staff tasks include monitoring stream diversions and applications for water rights. County staff work with water users to minimize existing impacts where possible and to protect adequate instream flows. Water rights in California are use rights. All waters are the property of the state. A water right in California is a property right allowing the use of water, but it does not involve ownership of the water.

The County Board of Supervisors has given direction to staff to protest water right applications that are inconsistent with policies for streamflow protection.

The following briefly describes water rights, a notoriously complex legal issue in the State of California . If in doubt, please contact the State Water Resources Control Board, Division of Water Rights. Water diversions from creeks are only legal if you have a Riparian Right, an Appropriative Water Right permit, or a Small Domestic Registration. A Riparian Right is limited to parcels straddling or adjacent to creeks. Diverted water must be used on the parcel, and storage of water beyond 30 days requires a water right permit. With an Appropriative Water Right, the land does not need to be next to a stream, and this type of right does not limit use to just the parcel containing the right and it allows water to be stored over 30 days. There are many considerations with stream diversions and interested individuals are encouraged to seek additional information. Any stream modification (e.g. rock-dam) requires a permit from California Department of Fish and Game and the United States Army Corps of Engineers, among others. Pump intakes must also be screened according to National Marine Fisheries guidelines to keep from drawing up aquatic life. Legally, you must leave enough water to fulfill the needs of legitimate downstream water users. In any case, it is illegal to pump a stream dry.

State law requires that all persons diverting water under claim of riparian right (Or appropriation initiated prior to 1914) must file a statement of Water Diversion and Use. The purpose of this law is to provide a record of water use which allows the State to better protect the vested rights of water users. The County also needs such information for more efficient management of water resources.

In addition to these procedures, the State may also determine that a stream is fully appropriated; meaning that water in the stream system is being fully applied to beneficial uses. When a stream is determined to be fully appropriated, no new permits may be filed with the State, and all pending applications may be cancelled. In Santa Cruz County , the San Lorenzo River is fully appropriated for the summer months. In California , anyone may also petition the State for an adjudication of a basin. In adjudication, the State determines the available water, and partitions amounts of water that each right holder may take. A court would then appoint a watermaster, to ensure that each rights holder is adhering to their allotment. Only Soquel Creek is adjudicated in Santa Cruz County.