Water Rights

MID, together with Turlock Irrigation District (TID), holds senior water rights – including an assortment of pre- and post-1914 water rights on the Tuolumne River.

We hold these water rights on behalf of the diverse communities we represent. All of these water rights are put to beneficial use, either as:

  • Water storage
  • Irrigation water for agriculture
  • Water for drinking and other urban uses
  • Environmental water releases that support fish, wildlife, and river ecosystems
California Water Rights Legislation

MID and TID's water rights have been the foundation of the Districts' water infrastructure investments like the Don Pedro Project, decades of smart water stewardship and sound locally-managed operations.

In 2023, several "water rights modernization" bills were introduced in the California legislature that would have had significant impacts on the California water rights system and could have permanently harmed water supply reliability and threatened MID's local control.

These bills Assembly Bill 460, Assembly Bill 1337, Senate Bill 389 - sought to dramatically expand the State Water Board's administrative authority in a manner that conflicted with the established water rights priority system California water users rely and depend on. These bills would have significantly impacted affordable housing, increased food costs and harmed our local economy.

MID worked with fellow irrigation districts, water agencies and industry groups including California Municipal Utilities Association and the Association of California Water Agencies to fight these bills and voice concerns to legislators. We also offered realistic suggestions and highlighted opportunities to bolster and improve administration of the established current water rights system.

Through tireless advocacy over almost two years, AB 460 and SB 389 were significantly amended and no longer will negatively impact MID's local control of our water resources. AB 1337 didn't advance through the legislative process.

Water rights are part of MID's history and integral to our water planning future. We will continue to make our voices heard for preserving and protecting our water rights.

California Water Rights System

What are Water Rights

  • Surface water rights are categorized as riparian or appropriative
  • Such rights are interests in real property, but attach to the use of the water, not to the ownership of it

Water rights can be used for a host of purposes, including:

  • Drinking water
  • Irrigation
  • Municipal
  • Industrial
  • Environmental

Nonetheless, all such use must be reasonable and beneficial in accordance with Article X, Section 2 of the California Constitution.

In the case of shortage, the available supply is used by the most senior water right holder first before any water is made available for junior water right holders under the rule of first-in-time, first-in-right.

Water Right Permits

  • Since 1914, getting a water right permit from the State Water Resources Control Board is the sole and exclusive means of acquiring an appropriative right
  • This system is well-established and reliable, providing certainty and clarity to water right holders
  • This certainty has enabled the development of significant water collection, storage, treatment and distribution infrastructure and facilities, sometimes conveying water for hundreds of miles to the end user
  • Over 40 million Californians rely on the infrastructure investments made by water right holders, which have led to California being one of the most prosperous places in the world despite its arid climate and diverse geography
State Water Board Authority

Especially in times of drought, there have been calls to significantly expand and increase the State Water Board's authority. The State Water Board already possesses broad authorities to administer the water rights priority system, including, but not limited to:

  • Water Code sections 1052 and 1831 to address unauthorized diversions. The Board itself has broad authority under Water Code sections 1051 and 1825 to investigate the legality of water use, to determine whether a diversion is authorized, and to cease and desist orders and fines when warranted.
  • Water Code Section 1058.5 grants the State Water Board authority to adopt emergency regulations in drought years to implement the water rights priority system and to prevent unauthorized diversion of water.
  • All water rights holders who divert water, under any basis of right, are required to measure the water they divert and report that information to the State Water Board, and the State Water Board may issue fines for diverters who fail to timely file such reports.
  • Water Code Section 1051 of the Water Code authorizes the State Water Board to investigate stream systems, and Sections 2500-2900 authorize the State Water Board to determine all rights to water of a stream system.
Improving the Water Rights System

MID and our Tuolumne River partners acknowledge that recent events and extended droughts have highlighted areas in which the State Water Board, in order to more efficiently administer the water rights system, needs to make improvements, including:

  • Encouraging the State Water Board to relentlessly enforce the current water rights system using its already-existing authorities.
  • Increasing fines for water users who violate the rules of their rights, take water without right, or otherwise unlawfully harm legal water users. Violations during emergency curtailment should be increasingly punitive.
  • Increasing funding for State Water Board staff to enforce the existing water rights priority system.
  • Increasing funding for State Water Board data management efforts and digital upgrades.
  • Increasing funding for installation of gages at priority locations.
  • Encouraging the collection and reporting of California river flow data on a real-time basis.
  • Increasing opportunities to use water for groundwater recharge, including increasing the efficiency of the water rights permitting application process.