The purpose of this paper is to provide a basic understanding of water transfers in California with an emphasis on transfers that move water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (Delta). This paper provides an overview of various types of water transfers, their recent history, and the regulatory setting that governs transfers.
In its 1976 report, the Governor’s Commission on Water Rights recognized the importance of water transfers to the future of California’s water supply and made recommendations regarding the need for specific changes to the Water Code to facilitate the transfer of water. Many of these changes were accomplished in the following years and are reflected in the discussions below.
Water transfers involve a change in the place of water use, from the water’s historic point of diversion and use, to a new location either within or outside the watershed of origin. Water may be transferred from one user to another for a variety of purposes, including agricultural, municipal and industrial uses. It may also be transferred for environmental purposes such as in-stream flow augmentation and wildlife refuges. Water transfers and exchanges can be temporary (up to one year) or long-term (more than one year, but not permanent) or permanent.
Water transfers can be an effective water management tool providing much-needed flexibility in the allocation and use of water in California. Transfers in California are primarily executed to meet dry-year demands rather than to obtain a primary water supply for either agricultural or municipal development. Transfers are particularly useful for meeting critical needs during drought periods. Transfers, however, must be carried out in a responsible manner in order to assure that they do not result in adverse impacts to other water users or unreasonable effects to the environment.