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Monday, December 11, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

California Water Atlas Posted Online

SACRAMENTO (CN) - The "first-ever" California Water Rights Atlas has been posted online, making thousands of water rights claims available to the public.

The Resource Renewal Institute announced the new website on Friday.

"Water is the most important issue facing California," former California Resources Secretary Huey Johnson said at a conference celebrating the new atlas. "The future hinges on how well we handle it."

Johnson founded the Resource Renewal Institute in 1985 to "facilitate the creation, development, and implementation of practical strategies to solve environmental problems in a comprehensive framework," according to the institute's website.

The institute called the website a "gift of information." It said the atlas "addresses California's water crisis by opening, organizing, and distilling dysfunctional state-level data to improve efficiency and access for water resource managers and the public."

Johnson said at the conference that he decided to create the atlas after years of frustration with the information available about water rights. "You almost had to be a priest of the process to access it and understand it," he said.

Under the California Constitution's Public Trust Doctrine, the public has a right to information about water rights.

But Johnson said special-interest groups have "manipulated policy and politics" to generate "purposeful confusion and chaos" and obstruct the public's ability to find and understand the data.

"For the past century, powerful special interests claimed ownership of both real and imaginary water through political contributions. Other states outgrew this corrupt practice long ago, but not California," Johnson said in a statement.

"Problems with the state's data infrastructure have directly contributed to cumbersome, inefficient water management and marginal civic engagement. Inconsistent and incomplete data resulted in wasted time, wasted money, and wasted opportunities."

Johnson said that water-rights holders in the state claim to divert 250 million acre-feet of water a year, though California receives around 71 million acre-feet of usable water from annual precipitation.

By providing "real-time and open information," the atlas can help citizens, nonprofit groups, policy makers, and the media participate meaningfully in water resource management, Johnson said.

"The new Atlas puts every citizen on equal footing with the most powerful special interests," he added.

The Governor's Office published a California Water Atlas in 1979, "a book dedicated to providing citizens with a strong starting point to tackle looming water scarcity and give clarity to a complex system," according to the statement.

The online Atlas will make the information transparent and available to the public, the institute said.

Users can see thousands of water rights claims by typing key phrases into the search bar, or perform specific searches with filters for county, body of water, watershed, status of the claim, or owner of the claim.

The claims appear on an interactive map as dots color-coded based on how the water is used, such as for irrigation, agriculture, or municipal purposes. The dots vary in size according to how many acre-feet per year each the claim's owner can divert.

Hovering the mouse over a dot causes a window to pop up, revealing who owns the claim, how many acre-feet per year the owner can divert, and sometimes the year the claim application was received.

The atlas includes "real-time information on water conveyance, remote in-stream sensor data, and water diversion reports," the institute's lead engineer said in a statement.


It took two to three months to download and compile records for the atlas from the State Water Resources Control Board and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Two Kern County men told Courthouse News that the atlas could help them research water rights in Lake Isabella and the Kern River Valley. The men are trying to restore water levels in the lake and to protect their small mountain community from drying up.

David Cummings, a sales executive with Virtual Images, contacted Courthouse News seeking information about water rights in the Kern River Valley after reading an article about the Central Valley Project, a 400-mile system of dams, reservoirs and canals.

"As you know we have had a couple of light winters and Lake Isabella is down to about 18 percent and they are still taking more water," Cummings wrote in an email to CNS.

"This impacts the summer tourist season for all the locals that rely on those dollars," he wrote.

Lake Isabella, pop. 3,500, is a resort town in the Sierras about 35 miles northeast of Bakersfield.

The lake itself is at the convergence of the North and South Forks of the Kern River at about 2,500 feet elevation. Both forks of the Kern River are "wild," uncontrolled by dams upstream, and attract whitewater enthusiasts. The town also hosts Whiskey Flats Days, a celebration of Wild West culture, and is home to one of the largest trout fishing derbies in the nation.

The dwindling water levels in Isabella Lake are hurting the town's tourism industry, Cummings said.

Back when the lake was at a "decent level," people came to Lake Isabella to go boating, camping, and hiking, and the town got a lot of money from tourists buying locally, Cummings said in a telephone interview.

"But now, no one's up there but some hunters," he said.

"The derby typically brings people, but I'm not too sure if it will attract anyone this year."

Lake Isabella resident Russ Kurtz agreed.

"The impact is crazy. They keep closing things up," he said: many businesses have closed due to debilitated tourism.

"The town is in dire shape at this point," Kurtz said. "The tourists are staying away in droves. ... Locals are even taking their boats to the Colorado River because the lake is too dangerous. It's grim."

Cummings, a part-time resident of Lake Isabella, said he got interested in the issue because of Owens Valley residents' fight for water against the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

"They have a huge battle with the DWP but have made significant gains," Cummings said. "It made me wonder, how far could we get exploring keeping water in Lake Isabella?"

He said that farmers downstream in the San Joaquin Valley "feel secure" about their rights to Kern River water because they use it for agricultural purposes.

"The water situation is controlled with an iron fist downstream," Cummings said. "It would be nice to be able to compromise though. "

Kurtz agreed.

"I think what needs to happen is to look at and change the allocation to maintain a higher level of water in the lake, and get some sort of allocation for the people here," he said.

"But whatever Bakersfield wants, Bakersfield gets," he added.

He said a local golf course gets its water from the Kern River, but its use is metered by Bakersfield, which sends the golf course a bill.

"I think it's just absurd," he said.

Kurtz said it's an uphill struggle.

"The community is not made of wealthy people, with a few exceptions. There's not a lot of horse power or votes. It takes votes to change things, and we don't have a lot of those here."

Johnson said the idea for the atlas came to him when he tried to go fishing in a river and found that it had dried up. He said many other rivers in California are flowing at low levels and drying up for the first time in years.

"Why?" Johnson asked. "Because there is no information, management, and oversight. Somebody must do it."

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