Water transfers between willing sellers and willing buyers can help stretch California's water supplies in dry times and move water to places of critical need. Each year hundreds of water transfers occur in California. The majority of these transfers are between agricultural water users in the same basin.
A water transfer is proposed and initiated by willing sellers who have legal rights to a supply of water of interest to a potential buyer. The seller must take specific actions within the seller’s service area to make water available to the buyer that would not be water available in the watercourse absent the transfer of "new water.”
Water transfers can be one of the water management tools to enhance flexibility in the allocation and use of water in California. Transfers are particularly useful for meeting critical needs during drought periods. Transfers must be carried out in a responsible manner to ensure that they do not result in adverse impacts to other water users or the environment, like the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta salinity.
DWR's Role in Facilitating Transfers
Water transfers are voluntary actions proposed by willing buyers and sellers, they are not initiated by State agencies. DWR is one of several public agencies involved in approval and management of proposed water transfers in California, and our involvement is due to our management of the SWP export and conveyance facilities in the Delta. Others include the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB), the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), US Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation), US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), National Marines Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries), county governments, and local/regional water districts. In coordination with other agencies and the buyers and sellers, DWR’s primary role is to provide guidance, review, approve and facilitate transfers that will use the available SWP facilities' capacity.
Water transfers that require the use of State, regional, or a local public agency's conveyance facilities require the owner of the conveyance facilities to determine that the transfers will not harm any other legal user of water, will not unreasonably affect fish and wildlife, and will not unreasonably affect the overall economy of the county from which the water is transferred (see: Water Code Section 1810). Water transfers that involve changes in point of diversion, place of use, or purpose of use to a post-1914 water right most often require the approval of the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB).
We encourage responsible water transfers. Checklists to help water managers with crop idling, groundwater substitution, and reservoir reoperation are available in "Draft Technical Information for Preparing Water Transfer Proposals" (Draft Water Transfer White Paper).
Cropland Idling/Crop Shifting
Cropland idling includes the idling of land that would have been planted during the transfer period in the absence of the transfer. Crop shifting is the shifting from historically planted higher-water-intensive crops to lower-water-using crops. It does not include land fallowed as part of normal farm operations, which does not make water available for transfer. Cropland idling or crop shifting water transfers make water available by reducing the consumptive use of surface water applied for irrigation. The Draft Water Transfer White Paper presents additional information on crop water use estimation and mitigation for potential effects from crop shifting/idling.
Groundwater substitution transfers make surface water available for transfer by reducing surface water diversions and replacing that water with groundwater pumping. The rationale is that surface water demands are reduced because a like amount of groundwater is used to meet the demands. The amount of foregone surface water diversion after streamflow depletion is then available at the point of transfer for the buyers. The Draft Water Transfer White Paper details related monitoring and mitigation measures for groundwater substitution transfers.
We hold periodic workshops; information on these workshops is available on request.
Reservoir Storage Release
Reservoir storage release transfers make surface water available for transfer when the seller releases water from their reservoir in excess of what would be released annually under normal operations. The water must also be released at a time when it can be captured and/or diverted downstream after conveyance loss.
Water Transfer Information Management System
The Water Transfer Information Management System (WTIMS) is an online web application to facilitate preparation and review of water transfer proposals in accordance with guidance in the Draft Water Transfer White Paper. It provides a transparent platform for preparers and reviewers to exchange data and information in a timely manner.
To develop a proposal, a seller must first establish a secure user ID and password by clicking "Request a Login ID" on the WTIMS website. Through WTIMS, the public can also access prior water transfer information and proposal review status for the current year.
"Informal Guidance for Agencies Requesting Use of State Water Project Facilities: GHG Emissions Assessment for CEQA Purposes" is available on request.
As trustee for California's fish and wildlife resources, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (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 consults with CDFW on the water amount needed for fish and wildlife. The CDFW staff reviews applications to appropriate new water sources, to change existing water uses, and water transfers.
The State Water Resources Control Board (State Water Board) regulates temporary and long-term water transfers of post-1914 appropriative water rights from individuals, water districts and water agencies to purchasers and transfers among parties within local watersheds.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (Reclamation) operates the Central Valley Project (CVP). Reclamation and DWR facilitate water transfers where there is available conveyance capacity after project operations. Water transfers and exchanges are an integral part of CVP water operations, particularly in drought years, as long as transfers can occur consistent with state and federal laws governing water transfers. The Central Valley Project Improvement Act of 1992 (CVPIA) authorizes the transfer of all or a portion of a CVP contractors contracted water supply to any other California water user or water agency, State or federal agency, Indian tribe, or private nonprofit organization for project purposes or any purpose recognized as beneficial under State law.
SWP and CVP operations are governed by regulatory restrictions, including SWRCB Decision 1641 (D-1641), the 2008 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) biological opinion for the coordinated operations of the CVP and SWP and its effects on the listed Delta smelt, and the 2009 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries (NOAA Fisheries) biological opinion for the coordinated operations of the CVP and SWP and its effects on listed anadromous fish and marine mammals.
A water transfer is a voluntary sale of water proposed and initiated by willing sellers who have legal rights to a supply of water to an interested buyer. The seller must take specific actions within its service area to make water available to the buyer that would not be available in the watercourse absent the transfer, "new water." Water transfers can be an effective management tool to provide flexibility in the allocation and use of water during dry periods.