West Coast
Angela DePalma-Dow.

CA - Lady of the Lake: Wondering about water rights

Dear Lady of the Lake, I just moved to Lake County and live next to the lake. I heard the other day that Lake County doesn’t have water rights to Clear Lake? Is that correct? Can I take water from the lake to irrigate my garden? I also have a pond on my property and a well, who has rights to those sources of water? Thanks for clearing this up! — Wondering about Water Rights Walter


Thank you for asking these questions. I get asked about water rights quite a bit actually. You are right about Clear Lake’s water rights — they actually belong to Yolo County. Anyone who takes water from the Lake — beyond riparian rights (we will talk about these below) — has to compensate Yolo County. This also applies to the streams that flow into Clear Lake. Basically, any water that would eventually flow through Clear Lake and into Cache Creek and through the Cache Creek dam is considered “property of Yolo County” and they can charge a user for diverting or selling that water.

The story about Clear Lake water rights is old, going back more than 100 years. There have been some modifications to the rights over the years to protect the sustainability of Clear Lake, to ensure there is water in the Lake to provide for the residents of Lake County who live around the lake and to protect the habitat of the lake for wildlife and recreation.

Water rights is a big topic, but very important. Water rights — and the registration and accounting of those rights — are important to the local, regional, and state managers of water resources. Without an accurate record of who is using water, where the water is coming from and what the water is being used for, water in the west can not be managed for long-term sustainability and the resource will literally go dry.

Please note that today’s column will not cover California Tribal Water rights, but know that in general tribal water rights, for federally recognized tribes, are governed by the Winters doctrine. This doctrine basically contains two principals; 1) federally reserved lands have a right to use sufficient water to fulfill the “primary purpose” of the reservation, and 2) these water rights cannot be destroyed by state water law or by water users acting in accordance with state law.

However, there are specific uses and rights determined by each individual tribe and lands in hand. For more information on the Winters Doctrine, I recommend this brief review from the Congressional Research Service by C. Broughner (2011).

There are also many complex issues arising when conflict around water rights and resources are strained, especially when it comes to tribal beneficial use and the demands of agriculture and hydropower generation that maintains the economy of the state. Again, this important and vital topic is way beyond the scope of today’s column, but a great book to read that dives into tribes, water use and conflict in California is “Upstream: Trust Lands and Power on the Feather River” By Dr. Beth Middleton of UC Davis (Available from University of Arizona Press). I highly recommend this read.

If you have questions about current rules and regulations for water rights in general, I suggest you refer to the State Water Resource Control Boards Water Rights Frequently Asked Questions. This page provides a plethora of information in a quick, easy format to find information related to any situation regarding water rights or water law in California.

Yolo County water rights

While I will cover some details here, and there are many details, be aware that there is a nice historical summary provided on the Water Resources Department webpage on “How Yolo County Acquired Water Rights.”

About 1908, the Yolo Water and Power Co., which purchased holdings and land from the Moore Ditch Company based in Yolo County, applied for 300,000 miners inches of water rights from Cache Creek, including Clear Lake and her tributaries. A miner’s inch is actually a unit of flow, but it varies between 1/36 and 1/60 cubic feet per second depending on where in the world the term is being used. The “inch” reference actually indicates the size, in square inches, of a hole and how much water would pass through in hydraulic mining operations. Today, this is translated to about 230,000 acre-feet of Clear Lake water.

In 1912 the Yolo Water and Power Co. application for Cache Creek water coincided with the construction of a dam on Cache Creek, near the current location of the Cache Creek Dam. It’s unclear exactly how much interest Lake County had in the water flowing through Cache Creek, but when the Board of Supervisors was asked if they wanted to also apply for the water rights, apparently they said no, and the Yolo Water and Power Co. was given priority rights.

Read more.