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Plan For Water: Water Rights - Location, Seniority, and Current Usage

NID water source in winte

If you live in the West, you're probably familiar with the topic of water rights. Here in California, we talk about it quite regularly, especially during a drought, which we often have. That's why the Nevada Irrigation District's Plan for Water is so important. And if you're a stakeholder, this gives you a chance to address your concerns.

The Plan for Water considers our water supply and the long-term impacts on our varying demands. Once complete, it will show how future supply and demand scenarios will be integrated into NID's water management practices. We want to ensure that everyone in our community has reliable access to high-quality water now and well into the future. Even 100 years from now!

To do this, we have to examine water rights. This includes location - where is water coming from and where is it going; seniority - "first in time, first in right"; and current usage - how much water are we already using?

Water Rights & Location

For this blog, we will look into Surface Water Rights and how they impact our community: businesses, individuals, agriculture, mining, etc. 

You may be wondering, what kind of surface waters are regulated here in California? They include:

  • Water flowing in a natural channel (these are waters that typically flow throughout the year)
  • Underflow of surface streams (so for instance, this is water that moves through subsurface materials such as rock, roots, and dirt)
  • Subterranean streams (for example, water flowing through a cave)This includes water flowing underground in "known and definite channels."It does not include "percolating groundwater."
  • Springs that flow off your property

There are several different types of water rights. Still, probably the kind most talked about that impacts the most people are Riparian Water Rights. The basic principle is this: all property owners adjacent to the stream have the right to reasonable use of the water from the stream (or natural lake if that is the water source).

Now, there are limits. Use on riparian lands within the watershed cannot be transferred. The right is to the natural streamflow only. Also, you can't store the water (at least not for more than 30 days).

Seniority and Appropriative Rights

California law allows surface water to be diverted at one point and used (appropriated) beneficially at a separate point. This, too, can be simplified with a basic principle: you get the right to use the water simply by putting it to beneficial use, regardless of location. This is the prevailing rule in most Western States. 

And, of course, there are laws governing appropriative rights. They are:

  • The California Practice Act of 1851 - "customs, usages, or regulations" of mining locations governs
  • First in time, first in right
  • California Civil Code (1872) -contains the specific procedure appropriation of water
  • Water Commission Act (1914) - gives us the process to acquire water rights

These laws regarding appropriative rights all take into account diverting water, place of use, purpose, seasonality, and conditions in the permit or license.

Again, the law states that it has to be for beneficial use if you want access to the water. So, what is "beneficial use"? Examples include the following:

  • Domestic
  • Irrigation
  • Stock watering
  • Municipal
  • Industrial/Commercial
  • Hydropower
  • Fish and Wildlife
  • Frost Protection. The state constitution gives some room for the future and different situations when it comes to beneficial use by stating that what is reasonable at one time or place may not be in others.

As we plan for the future, we're required to consider the impact of appropriations upon public trust resources, as well as commerce, navigation, and fisheries in navigable water. It's all part of the Public Trust Doctrine.

Current Water Usage

Currently, the NID has 53 established water rights, one pending application, and two pending transfers.

There are two main watersheds within our territory. One is the Yuba River Watershed, and the other is the Bear River Watershed. Combined, they are 70 thousand acres of high elevation (> 3,000’ in elevation) watershed. 

That's some good mountain water for all of us. In fact, it's 3 billion gallons of high-quality water that we deliver to our customers each year. And it's not just drinking water. Our water also supports 30 thousand acres of irrigated agricultural lands. 

Does that sound like a lot of water? It is! Many of us go through the day without truly realizing how much water we use. For instance, if you take into account water consumption in our homes, most of use the following:

  • 24% flushing the toilet
  • 20% showering
  • 19% from the faucet
  • 17% washing our clothes
  • 12% is coming from a leak
  • 8% other ways

Knowing how we use our water and how much of it we use is essential in planning for our future water usage.


We want to invite you to help us Plan for Water. As you can see, it's an integral part of your daily life. We still have several workshops coming to have your questions and concerns addressed.
The next workshop is on March 8th at 4 pm. The meeting will be on Zoom.

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