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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Water Rights Challenges to Coho Recovery in Coastal California Watersheds

  • Author(s): Alford, Chris
  • et al.

The recovery of populations of anadromous fish species such as coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch), a state and federally listed species, has been a major driver in both regulatory and voluntary efforts to protect and manage instream water quality and quantity in the coastal watersheds of Northern California. While prominent portions of California law (Public Trust Doctrine, California Water Code § 100, California Fish and Game Code § 1700, and California Public Resources Code § 10000-10005) state the need to protect water resources for environmental purposes, California’s legal requirements for obtaining and maintaining surface water rights largely inhibit the ability of individual water rights holders to contribute to this cause. In my review of California water law and current instream flow programs I found that regulatory-based methods for dedicating water rights to instream flows currently involve time and monetary costs that are prohibitive for most water rights holders. Additionally, I found that while several non-governmental organizations are implementing innovative instream flow dedication programs, their efforts are hindered by the very laws and policies that are intended to protect instream flows. In order to effectively manage instream flows necessary for coho habitat, the existing 1707 dedication process must be simplified. Non-regulatory programs, while already implemented efficiently, would benefit by being recognized by the State Water Resources Control Board so that instream flow dedications are effectively protected downstream and appropriative water rights holders do not risk losing their water right due to their voluntary instream flow contributions.

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