Searching California Water Rights

Historic water right document
Client:   LA Department of Water and Power

Water rights in California are famously contested and complicated. And as our climate changes and drought becomes more frequent, allocating water will become ever more challenging. The water rights system in our state rests on understanding who owns rights to how much water, from where and who gets to claim their water before other people in the same watershed. Understanding all that, in turn, rests both electronic data and thousands of pages of legal documents housed at the Department of Water Rights in Sacramento. This pilot project set out to test making all that information more accessible and searchable through online tools.

For this pilot project funded on a test case in the Mono Basin, GreenInfo managed the scanning of more than 100,000 pages of documents by a scanning vendor who came onsite in 2019 and scanned and indexed 60 boxes of documents related to two massively litigated water rights owned by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Then we developed an indexing and search system, and engaged expert help from the Water and Power Law Group to index the documents with authors, dates, and other information that were difficult to extract with automated systems. The documents cover a wide range of content and types, from century-old original water rights declarations to public comment postcards mailed in the 1990s as part of campaigns to influence how these watersheds were managed. The system allows for user feedback and suggestions for improving indexing, and links out to scans of each original PDF.

Alongside this document search system, we also developed a priority search tool that helps visualize and sort water rights along streams and rank them by seniority, to help better communicate which diversion points need to share water with which others. This tool would be one part of potential future systems to present better information about where new water rights might be feasible or might lead to overdrafts of already stressed watersheds.

In July 2021, we were listed as coauthors on a technical paper from U.C. Berkeley's Center for Law, Energy, and Environment, Piloting a Water Rights Information System for California. That document's key finding: "Ultimately, we find that a modernized water rights data is feasible, affordable, and can increase clarity for better decision making. Our report offers a vision and roadmap for making it a reality." Our data and web development work was a key support for that finding. This work was also featured in an Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times.

Since this project was a pilot, it covers only a small area and a few rights. It will be used as part of a larger research effort from U.C. Berkeley's Center for Law, Energy, & the Environment to chart a course toward better statewide systems for understanding, managing, and allocating water rights in California.

Focus:   Environment  

Services:  Interactive Solutions, GIS Services, Data, Applications Development, Web Mapping 

Project Years: 2019-2020

GreenInfo Network creates, analyzes, visualizes and communicates information in the public interest. We specialize in mapping and related technology for nonprofits and public agencies, focusing on using it for conservation, social equity, public health, environment and foundation grant making.
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