Water diversion report deadline comes on July 1

Issue Date: June 2, 2010
Kate Campbell

People who divert surface water in California face a July 1 deadline to report that use for 2009. Failure to do so by the deadline could result in hefty fines.

The new reporting requirement is included in the package of water bills passed by the Legislature late last year. The intent of the new law is to better identify the amount of water being used in the state’s watersheds.

Although there are a few reporting exceptions, Danny Merkley, California Farm Bureau Federation water resources director, said it’s important for landowners to note that reporting diversions to the State Water Resources Control Board has been required for decades, but he said “in the past there were no legal consequences for failure to report. Now, there are.”

Water board officials have estimated that only about a third of surface water diversions currently are reported. And, while the program has been around for years, they say relatively little information has come in.

For people filing the reports for the first time, Merkley said, “filling out the initial statement provided by the water board is the first important step. After that, reporting will be required on a three-year cycle.”

Water rights holders reporting for the first time will have to file initial statements by the July 1 deadline or face a maximum penalty of $1,000—plus $500 for each day the violation continues after the water board notifies the water rights holder. Other new penalties after July 1 include:

  • $1,000 for failure to file and $500 a day for failure to correct a report within 30 days of being notified.
  • $250 for accidental misstatements, including those caused by a broken water measuring device, and $250 per day for failure to correct after 60 days of being notified.
  • $25,000 for willful misstatements, including those caused by tampering with a water measuring device, and $1,000 per day for failing to correct it within 30 days of being notified.

See the chart on this page for further detail on fines for failure to comply.

“It’s no secret, the water board has hired 25 new enforcement personnel and they’ve said the Russian River and delta are the two highest priority areas,” Merkley said.

Reports are not required for diversions from springs that don’t flow off the property and total 25 acre-feet or less per year, registered small domestic and livestock ponds, state licensed diversions and those from a source regulated by a court or state appointed watermaster, where the watermaster maintains records of the diversions.

“These changes in reporting water diversions signal a new and potentially more costly requirement for water users,” Merkley said. “This new law also removed some previous reporting exemptions, for example some diversions in the delta.”

At this point the water board does not have contact information for the many thousands of entities diverting water from streams, rivers and lakes, Merkley said. Farm Bureau has been holding informational workshops on the reporting change throughout the state to help members understand what’s now required of those who divert surface water.

With the deadline looming, Merkley said farmers and ranchers need to take steps to avoid penalties and daily fines.

“One of the things I highly recommend is that our members go to the state water board website and review the frequently asked questions,” he said. “They’ll also find additional background and the reporting form itself.”

The state water board now offers new online reporting options through its Electronic Water Rights Information Management System, or eWRIMS. Online reporting is an option this year; however, the water board plans to adopt new regulations to require all future water use reports to be submitted electronically.

One thing that remains the same, Merkley said, is that those who have been reporting diversions every three years, as the law requires, will not have to change their reporting procedures.

“The water board has been clear that those on the three-year reporting cycle will continue on that program,” Merkley said.

He stressed that meeting the new reporting requirements doesn’t carry any additional costs for those who divert water under their existing water rights. The costs of this new program are in the failure to report by the specified deadline and in new permit fees to support the 25 new enforcement personnel.

“My advice is this: Understand what the law requires and file in a timely manner,” Merkley said. “Doing so will help shore up your water rights, whether it’s a pre-1914 right, a riparian water right or if it’s an appropriative right.”

Although this change in water reporting carries stiff penalties and affects thousands of family farms and ranches, Merkley said earlier legislative proposals in the water package were even more draconian.

For example, Merkley said Farm Bureau and other agricultural organizations were successful in gaining amendments to proposed language that would have established penalties at an amount equivalent to the highest market value of water and would have imposed such penalties for up to three years retroactively.

“Prior versions of the bill also would have given broad new authority to the state water board to levy fees for various enforcement purposes, and would have allowed the board to initiate water rights cases instead of merely responding to complaints,” Merkley said.

CFBF was involved throughout 2009 in negotiations on the various legislative proposals dealing with water infrastructure, water use efficiency, water diversions and groundwater monitoring.

“The comprehensive water package did not materialize until early November,” Merkley said. “Most of the work on the final package was completed during a special legislative session called by the governor. During the negotiations surrounding components of the water package, Farm Bureau worked around the clock with other agricultural stakeholders for amendments to improve the package and rid it of many provisions that would have been damaging to agricultural operations.”

Farm Bureau has prepared a detailed guidance document to help members meet the new reporting requirements. It’s available online at www.cfbf.com/waterreporting.

The State Water Resources Control Board website also will help explain the new reporting requirements at www.waterboards.ca.gov. To subscribe to the board’s free Water Rights Newsletter, go to www.waterboards.ca.gov

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.