Introducing Modernizing California Water Law

Summers are getting hotter. Rain and snowpack are disappearing, and water reserves are shrinking. This reduction of readily available, adequate water resources is creating a crisis that directly harms Californians and their environment.

Studies have found that one million Californians do not have safe drinking water. In addition, during the last drought, about 3,500 domestic wells went dry and about 2,600 households were negatively affected by the lack of available water. As climate change further affects California’s water resources, the number of Californians who lack clean, accessible water will significantly increase. These problems are almost entirely occurring within California’s economically disadvantaged, minority communities.

California’s aquatic ecosystems are also in crisis. The state has experienced a long-term decline in freshwater native biodiversity. More than 100 freshwater-dependent species of plants and wildlife are listed for state and federal protections in California’s freshwater ecosystems, and recovery is limited. Earlier assessments found that if this trend continued most California native fish populations would decline and some would likely be driven to extinction. Since the last drought, these findings were updated to conclude that at least 18 species of native fish were “highly vulnerable to extinction” if that most recent drought had continued and that such species “are at high risk of extinction during the next severe drought.” This loss of biodiversity is not only detrimental to California’s ecology, but also affects California’s indigenous populations, fishing communities, and others who rely on healthy fisheries for income and recreation.

The State’s water users are confronting increasingly scarce and unpredictable water supplies. Many urban communities are facing severe water shortages that have prompted new and unprecedented calls for extraordinary water conservation measures for California residents. The state’s industrial and commercial sectors—critical to California’s economy–could be compromised. And state farmers and ranchers, who provide much of the nation with its fruits, vegetables, and nut products, are facing severe water cutbacks that can contribute to farmlands fallowed, orchards uprooted, and herds being reduced. Climate change suggests that these water challenges will constitute the “new normal” in California, rather than an aberration.

California’s current system of water laws is ill-equipped to respond to modern water shortages. California’s water laws need to be re-assessed to address today’s challenges, safeguard the health, safety, and livelihoods of California’s 40 million residents, support its economy, and protect California’s imperiled ecosystems.

To confront these critical issues, this project, Modernizing California Water Law, will assess potential reforms to improve California’s current water governance structure. This project will focus on improving key principles and processes to better facilitate the protection of aquatic ecosystems and efforts to ensure clean, safe, and affordable water for urban and rural communities. It will also focus on updating antiquated water laws and institutions that allow California to live sustainably with the “new normal” of California’s water challenges, including drought.

This project is inspired by the Governor’s Commission to Review California Water Rights Law established in 1977. Then-Governor Jerry Brown created the Commission in the midst of a previous drought to examine deficiencies in existing California water laws and develop key recommendations to address them, resulting in a 1978 final report. Almost a half-century later, the Planning and Conservation League has assembled a group of eight top California water law and policy experts who have pledged their time to help develop new recommendations, taking into account the unprecedented conditions facing 21st century California.

These experts include Camille Pannu, Former Director of the Water Justice Clinic at UC Davis and visiting Assistant Clinical Professor of Law, UC Irvine School of Law; Tam Doduc, Former Member of the State Water Resources Control Board; Holly Doremus, Professor of Law and Member-Scholar of the Center for Progressive Reform, UC Berkeley Law School; Richard Frank, Professor of Environmental Practice, UC Davis School of Law and former Chief Deputy at the California Attorney General Office; Linda Sheehan, Executive Director of Environment Now and former Adjunct Professor at Vermont Law School; Clifford Lee, former Deputy Attorney General at the California Attorney General’s Office; Jennifer Harder, Professor of Law, Legal Practice, at McGeorge School of Law, and Barton Thompson, Professor of Law, Stanford University.

For more information about this project, please contact Jonas Minton at or (916) 719-4049 or Sofia Rafikova at or (916) 822-5631.