PCL Insider – August 2023

PCL & Allies Advance Water Reforms: SB 389, AB 460, & AB 1337

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It has been a remarkable year for water reform in California, and PCL, with our allies, has been out in front leading the charge. Building on the momentum from our win on SB 1205 last year, a  movement is beginning to coalesce around the need to reform key water laws in a direction that advances the needs of people and the environment while helping us adapt to the impacts of climate change. Mobilizing around a trio of bills (SB 389, AB 460, and AB 1337), over 70 groups, including California tribes, environmental justice organizations, commercial fishing, and sport fishing groups, and a wide range of conservation organizations, have joined to support one or more of the measures with 16 groups supporting the entire package as of this writing. Organizing openly and collaboratively and allowing groups to join in support of the reforms that fit their mission, PCL and our allies are advancing reforms that matter and will help us all adapt and thrive.

The Problem

The fact is, California has nineteenth-century rules and tools to address twenty-first-century challenges with the management of our water. Additionally, those inherited rules and tools are at best inequitable and, at worst, deprive hundreds of thousands of Californians access to safe, reliable, and affordable drinking water. We are now facing the ever-growing impacts of climate change, with summers getting hotter, average rain and snowfall levels decreasing, and our water reserves shrinking.

Understanding and managing water flows, quality, diversions, beneficial uses, and discharges are essential given California’s limited and potentially dwindling water supply under the challenges of climate change and prolonged droughts.

Today, California lacks the fundamental ability to truly assess how much water is available and how much is used across all diverters. Water managers, planners, and regulators in the state lack the tools to address critical shortages, which endangers downstream users and the environment. This combined lack of knowledge and essential tools leads to uncertainty for all – unknown and unregulated use by just one diverter can devastate ecosystems and other senior water users dependent on downstream diversions.

The Reforms

These three bills focus on a fair, balanced, equitable, and timely tool set for the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) and water rights holders. With these new tools, we will be able to more quickly address critical shortages in coming droughts and work towards ensuring the most senior water users provide critical information on historical and current use.

Surface Water Rights Verification – SB 389 by Senator Ben Allen

This bill has cleared the Senate, and we expect it to come up for a vote on the Assembly floor in the next two weeks; we are working to pass SB 389 in this session and get the governor’s signature. The legislation seeks to obtain a more accurate evaluation of water usage in a given system. To do so, SB 389 grants the SWRCB the authority to review, verify, and issue decisions on senior water rights claims not granted via the Water Commission Act of 1913, namely pre-1914 appropriative and riparian water rights.

Interim Relief – AB 460 by Assemblymember Rebecca Bauer-Kahan & Assemblymember Laura Friedman

AB 460 gives the SWRCB clear authority to temporarily limit water diversions from all rights holders in times of shortage when harm is occurring, both during drought emergency and non-drought emergency years, and increases fines for unauthorized diversions. The authors held the bill over to next spring, and we will engage in grassroots organizing to ensure AB 460’s advance in 2024.

Fair Regulation of Water Rights – AB 1337 by Assemblymember Buffy Wicks

This legislation grants the SWRCB authority to curtail any diverter, regardless of the basis for their right, when water is unavailable under the diverter’s priority of right. Even though about a third of all surface water is diverted under a pre-1914 water right, the water code, which authorizes the Water Board to curtail rights during non-emergency water shortages, only applies to post-1914 rights. Therefore, even when there is not enough water to satisfy all pre-1914 right holders, the SWRCB lacks the authority to regulate, and these right holders are left to police themselves. The legislation is now a two-year bill, and PCL and our allies will work to pass AB 1337 in 2024 to close this loophole.

We must build support and momentum for these modest but essential reforms to address climate change and water equity. These bills protect due process rights for water rights holders and ensure greater protections for all beneficial uses, including housing and farming. The bills seek to protect the rights and access of legal water users against illegal diversions, allowing our water system to work as intended.

These bills are part of California’s larger strategy for climate change adaptation. Other efforts include water management planning, recharge projects, urban storm-water capture, water use reduction, reuse, and recycling across all sectors.

Water, just like air, is a public resource – essential to each and every one of us every day of our lives. We changed how we manage our air starting in the 1960s, and we have all benefited in the decades since. In the face of climate change, PCL and our allies are sponsoring groundbreaking legislation to adapt how we manage our water for the benefit of all.


Click here to find your Assemblymember. Enter your address and then click on the locate button. Follow the links on the form to your Assembly member’s webpage and click on their contact button. You can either call their office or use their online contact form and ask them to:

“Please support SB 389 by Senator Allen when it comes up for a Floor Vote in the Assembly. SB 389 will ensure a more accurate evaluation of water usage in California and advance equity for all water users. Thank you.”

PCL Background

In 2020, the Planning and Conservation League (PCL) convened a group of water law and policy experts to develop recommendations for Updating California Water Laws to Address Drought and Climate Change. The report contains 11 recommendations to modernize California’s water rights law. Read the full report – Updating California Water Laws to Address Drought and Climate Change.