Water transfers can be an effective tool for water managers to provide flexibility in the allocation and use of water by moving water to where it is needed most, especially during times of drought. Water transfers can also help accommodate shifts in water demand over the long term. 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.
Water transfers are transactions between sellers who may have an excess of supply and are willing to sell some of it, and buyers who need additional water supplies to meet their demands. Transfers in California are primarily executed to meet dry-year demands rather than to obtain a primary water supply, and are particularly useful for meeting critical needs during drought periods.
A transfer is defined as a temporary or long-term change in the point of diversion, place of use, or purpose of use of water due to transfer, sale, or exchange of water or water rights. Water can be transferred between neighboring water districts or even across the state, provided there is a means to convey or store the water.
Water can be made available for transfer in one of three main ways: By transferring water from reservoir storage, pumping groundwater instead of using delivered surface water, or by reducing consumptive use through crop idling or crop shifting. A key component of water transfers is determining how much water is actually available for transfer.
Each year, hundreds of water transfers occur in California, mostly between agricultural users in the same basin. These transfers are governed by the water rights held by the water district and are a matter of internal allocation adjustments by water district members. However, transfers that involve changes to the terms of the seller’s water rights permits or transfers that use public facilities for conveying the water must be reviewed by the State Water Resources Control Board, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Department of Water Resources, or a combination thereof.
Water transfers between basins are not simple transactions, nor are they without controversy. The impacts of transfers can be many, and can affect not only the area from which the water is transferred, but downstream users and instream flows as well. Impacts can be both economic and environmental, so to ensure that these impacts are identified and minimized, transfers involving public agencies are required to comply with CEQA or NEPA.
There is also a lot of uncertainty and risk associated with water transfers; it is possible that despite adequate planning and regulatory approval, all or a portion of the water made available from the water transfer may not be exported and may be lost due to uncertainties related to hydrologic conditions, regulatory restrictions, and the availability of conveyance facilities. Currently, federal Endangered Species Act regulations restrict transfers to the period of July through September. Limitations on water project operations in the early winter and spring months often result in the need to maximize exports during the transfer window, further limiting the available export capacity for water transfers.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Helpful documents …
- Background and Recent History of Water Transfers in California, report by the Department of Water Resources and the State Water Resources Control Board (July, 2015)
- Management of Water Transfers and the Department of Water Resources’ role, fact sheet by DWR (February, 2014)
- Water Transfer Program Information from the State Water Resources Control Board (September, 2014)
- California’s Water Market, fact sheet from the PPIC
- Water transfers: Upending California’s water rights system, from C-WIN
Agency webpages …
- The Department of Water Resources Water Transfers Page
- The State Water Resources Control Board Water Transfer Program
- The Bureau of Reclamation’s Water Transfers Page
More on water transfers from Maven’s Notebook …
- CALIFORNIA WATER LAW SYMPOSIUM: Utilization of Water Transfers to Recharge Groundwater Basins Posted on: March 14, 2018
Water transfers can be an effective water management tool for providing much-needed flexibility in the allocation and use of water in California. Water transfers occur for a variety of purposes, including agricultural, municipal and industrial uses; water may also be transferred for environmental purposes such as in-stream flow augmentation and wildlife refuges. Transfers are particularly useful for meeting critical needs [...]
- DR. BRUCE HERBOLD: Delta Flows and the effects of water transfers Posted on: September 21, 2017
Dr. Bruce Herbold is a retired EPA fish biologist and now a consultant on the same issues. In this presentation from the AquAlliance conference last fall, Dr. Herbold discusses drought, flows in the Delta, and the effects of transfers on the fish in the Delta. Dr. Herbold began by saying that managing water in California is fraught with difficulties, and [...]
- News Worth Noting: SGMA basin boundary modification request period now open; Final language of 2016 water priorities ballot initiative; CCWD Board approves water transfer policy principles; Enviro docs for Delta salinity stations refurbishment; Updated Central Valley basin plans Posted on: January 5, 2016
SGMA Groundwater Basin Boundary Modification Request Submission Period Now Open As implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act continues, the first submission period is now open for groundwater sustainability agencies to submit requests to modify the boundaries of the groundwater basins as identified in Bulletin 118. Local agencies have from now until March 31, 2016 to complete their submission. This [...]
- Water transfers and the Delta Plan, part 4: The buyers and sellers' perspective Posted on: October 15, 2015
A panel of buyers and sellers discusses the time frames, procedural considerations, and the overall complexity of water transfers Water transfers are transactions between sellers who may have excess supply or are willing to give up some of their current supplies, and buyers who need additional water supplies to meet their demands. California’s extensive infrastructure makes it possible for those [...]
- Water transfers and the Delta Plan, part 3: The environmental perspective Posted on: October 14, 2015
Dr. Bruce Herbold and Sandi Matsumoto discuss the potential impacts of single-year transfers on the Delta’s ecosystem and wildlife During the development of the first Delta Plan, one of the many issues considered by the Delta Stewardship Council was water transfers and their possible impact on the Delta and the coequal goals. While water transfers are an important tool for [...]