California Department of Fish and Wildlife

Water Rights

What Are Water Rights?

Aerial photo of Hetch-hetchy Reservoir

Photo by Department of Water Resources

A water right is legal permission to use a reasonable amount of water for a beneficial purpose such as swimming, fishing, farming or industry. California water rights law is administered by the State Water Resources Control Board’s Division of Water Rights (State Water Board). The State Water Board is the only agency with authority to administer water rights in California. If you take water from a lake, river, stream, or creek, or from underground supplies for a beneficial use, the California Water Code requires that you have a water right. If you began using surface water or groundwater from a subterranean stream after 1914, when the Water Commission Act was enacted, unless you have a riparian right, you must apply for and receive approval from the State Water Board before using water. If the state approves your application, you will receive a water right permit.

CDFW's Role in the Water Rights Process

As trustee for California’s fish and wildlife resources, the CDFW has jurisdiction over the conservation, protection, and management of fish, wildlife, native plants, and habitat necessary for biologically sustainable populations of those species. The California Water Code requires that when considering the appropriation of water, the State Water Board consult with CDFW on the amounts of water needed for fish and wildlife. CDFW staff reviews applications to appropriate new sources of water, to change existing uses of water, and to transfer water. As a result of these reviews, CDFW may file protests or complaints to avoid adverse impacts on public trust resources.

CDFW has the authority to impose conditions to protect fish and wildlife in Small Domestic Use, Small Irrigation Use, and Livestock Stockpond Use Registrations. CDFW engages in the State Water Board’s water right process via review, analysis, and comment on new water rights applications, development of conditions for water right permits and licenses, as well as any proposed changes to existing water rights. CDFW applies science through the identification of studies, surveys, and data needs required for evaluation of baseline conditions associated with water projects, development of bypass flows and other conditions necessary to protect fish and wildlife resources, and development of terms and conditions to protect public trust resources for water transfer change petitions.

Program Structure & Key Activities

As part of the Water Branch’s Statewide Water Planning Program, the Water Rights coordinator works closely with the State Water Board and CDFW Regional staff on statewide water rights policies and issues of interest to CDFW. Regional staff routinely review new water rights applications, registrations, and change petitions that are filed with the State Water Board. Staff participates in early consultation with federal, State, and local agencies, project applicants, and other water rights holders, including field inspections of proposed water project sites in order to develop adequate fish and wildlife mitigation measures. Key activities include:

  • Coordinate on water rights issues with the State Water Board, CDFW Regional, headquarters, and Office of the General Council staff; federal, State, and local agencies; and the regulated and environmental communities.
  • Assist CDFW Regions and State Water Board on field inspections and evaluations of water right project sites and violations.
  • Ensure protection of existing stream flow for fish and wild life resources through coordination with CDFW’s Fisheries and Instream Flow functions
  • Establish procedures and guidelines to determine protective bypass and instream flows.
  • Develop wetland, riparian, fish, and wildlife mitigation measures.
  • Provide technical input to other agencies.

Water Rights Links

State Water Board’s Division of Water Rights

Policy for Maintaining Instream Flows in Northern California Coastal Streams (PDF)

Water Rights Decisions, Orders and Judgments

CDFW Water Rights Contacts List (PDF)

For more information, contact James Rosauer at or (916) 445-8360.