Help for Property Owners with Unregistered Ponds in Sonoma & Marin Counties

Written By: Admin
Published: October 1, 2013

This past year the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) Division of Water Rights began the process of registering ponds on the north coast. Property owners in Marin, Sonoma, Mendocino, Humboldt and Napa counties were notified that as owners of surface water ponds they were required to register the pond for use or seek an appropriative water right.  The SWRCB is responsible for the administration of appropriative water rights in California initiated after 1914; commonly referred to as “post-1914 appropriative water rights.” In most cases, any reservoir constructed after 1914 that collects surface water for storage requires an appropriative water right issued by the SWRCB.  The efforts by the SWRCB are being conducted as part of the authority to protect public trust resources such as the threatened salmon and steelhead fisheries from unauthorized diversions by ensuring that all storage facilities are operating legally.

Many of the ponds are located on rural properties and were constructed many decades ago. These older ponds exist with no registration or appropriative water right.  For many landowners the registration process is an appropriate path to legalizing the water diversion. There are three registration classes including domestic use, livestock watering and small irrigation. The registrations for domestic use and livestock watering have a maximum annual diversion of 10 acre-feet while the irrigated use has a maximum diversion of 20 acre-feet. An acre foot of water is one surface acre filled to a depth of one foot and is approximately 325,000 gallons. The only diversions that are exempt from permitting are ponds that store water from springs that don’t leave the property, are filled with groundwater or capture sheet flow and not from a defined channel.

The registration process begins with the submittal of a Statement of Diversion and Use.  The registration application includes property and water use information and is filed with the SWRCB.  The registration fee is $250 and is valid for three years after which time the registration is updated. The registration of surface water ponds is streamlined process of water licensing and much cheaper as compared to having to establish a full appropriative water right that can take a decade or longer and requires a significant investment without an assurance that the right will be granted. Failure to register a pond could result in enforcement action from the SWRCB.

One of the issues that has arisen is when the pond volume is too big to fit into the registration class.  In some instances it is necessary and prudent to complete an engineering survey of the pond to accurately determine the volume and inform the landowner of possible options that can be employed to comply with State law.  It is possible that reducing the volume of the pond may be the most economic means to bring the structure into compliance and meet the registration requirements. Reducing the volume of a pond could include lowering the spillway of the pond to reduce the volume.  This work potentially requires permitting from applicable county planning and building departments for grading and slope stability and potentially permits from resource agencies including Fish & Wildlife, Regional Board and Army Corps of Engineers depending on the characteristics and setting of the dam.

Information regarding water rights and the registration process can be found at the SWRCB web site at

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