ANALYSIS: California Water Rights Still 90% White

Current water management protects status quo

For Release: Monday, Feb. 27 2023 8:30 am
For more information: Brian Smith

Stockton, CA – To inform the Adapting Water Rights to our 21st Century Climate” hearing at the Assembly Committee on Water, Parks, and Wildlife on Tuesday 2/28/23, Restore the Delta today is releasing the results of a California water rights analysis by race, completed by employees with the Department of Water Resources, but deleted from the agency’s website soon after posting. 

This analysis of public records shows that the majority of water rights in California are held still by white landowners and white officials who manage special-interest water districts. (Detailed data is available to reporters.)


For the third annual California Water Data Challenge contest, two DWR employees chose to study control of water by race and ethnicity during the summer of 2022.

They concluded from their study that of 1500 local and state officials that 86 percent were white, and 79 percent were male. This data came from local district agency websites and the California State Workforce Analysis. 

Their profile of representation among some 14,000 individual water right holders showed that 91 percent were white, with Asians, Blacks and Hispanic categories accounted for the rest. This database was obtained from the State Water Board’s eWRIMS database of all water right holders, not just the Central Valley Watershed.

“The results of this study echo findings I’ve made from the 2017 Census of Agriculture where it is reported that 90 percent of California farm operators report as white and that they control 95 percent of all California land in farms in 2017,” said Tim Stroshane, policy analyst for Restore the Delta. 

Despite accepted science that the SF Bay-Delta needs increased water flows to protect endangered species and public health in Delta communities, the special interests who hold water rights continue to get waivers for unreasonable diversions from public trust resources in the Delta.

Many of these interests are also driving the Delta tunnel project and have kept tribes and communities of color out of California’s water planning process.

Governor Newsom’s “voluntary agreements” are the continuation of the racism built into the California water rights system, which stripped tribes of their water access and prevented communities of color from acquiring water rights.

The history of racism in California Water rights was outlined by a coalition of California Tribes and Delta environmental justice groups in 2022. The May 24 petition included an extensive description of California’s racist history that formally granted water rights only to white men. Indigenous Peoples and communities of color in the Delta were not given the opportunity to acquire water rights under state law. And the water rights system continues to fail to recognize that Indigenous communities, who used and stewarded the waterways since time immemorial, have prior rights to the water. Today, so-called “senior” water rights holders still have a tight grip on river flows as they wield enormous political power.

Rebuffed by the State Water Board, in December 2022, the same coalition filed a Title VI complaint and petition for rulemaking with the federal EPA concerning the Bay-Delta Plan. Tribes accuse California water board of discrimination and urge EPA oversight of Bay-Delta – LA Times 12/7/22

Statements on these findings

Malissa Tayaba, Vice Chair, Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians
The water rights data is not surprising. In fact, the findings are aligned with the history of this state which displaced tribes from our ancestral homelands through colonization and state sponsored genocide. Although the State of California’s current water rights system excluded us and continues to do so to this day, we know that tribes have inherent and sovereign water rights that we will continue to fight for. We have a responsibility to protect our water, our culture, and our traditions. We are still here.  And we refuse to be the afterthought of a state system that has denied us for too long.

Gary Mulcahy, Government Liaison, Winnemem Wintu Tribe
Crystal clear, or blood red: How do you see your tap water? Think about who holds those water rights and how and where they got them.  Maybe you will see your water differently.

Cintia Cortez, Assistant Policy Analyst, Restore the Delta
In our fieldwork, we have taken many community testimonies about residents exposed to Harmful Algal Blooms when recreating in Delta waters. HABs can make people sick and even kill pets. HABs also add to regional air pollution in counties already out of compliance with Clean Air Act standards.

Environmental Justice communities in the Delta are at the mercy of the decisions made by the Water Board and water rights holders, who we now know are mostly white males who are protecting their own personal interests. They are not seeing the impacts on our communities caused by lack of flows through the Delta. Why would they? It is not their communities that are being impacted by their actions. Nobody would knowingly expose their families to the environment in which Delta EJ communities live.

Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, Executive Director, Restore the Delta
The majority white water rights holders in California are driving the Voluntary Agreements, and stopping the completion of the Bay-Delta Plan to create water quality standards that can save Delta species and communities racially excluded for most of California’s history from even owning water rights.

Related Posts