Water transfer requires government approval. And the government does not approve it. For example, in 2022, 337,564 AF1 was requested and 0 AF was granted.

Given that politicians talk about reducing water waste, wouldn't it make sense to approve transfers? If a water owner wants to sell his water, doesn't that mean that he found someone else that can generate more economic value from his water than the water owner can on his own property? Isn't it wasteful to force the water owner to use the water on his own property?

Given the huge economic costs (billions in lost tax revenues as residents leave the state) caused by high retail prices ($8K/AF including "penalties") for urban beautification projects, why is a farmer who generates $1K/AF of value not allowed to help address the economic issue by selling his water? And how could the farmer possibly be happy about not being able to sell his water for greater profit?

Is the political climate that there are just too many people or too much economic activity in California? If not, why wouldn't water transfers be approved? Clearly the transportation infrastructure can handle deliveries, since it was done in previous years (and now usage is cut back due to extreme conservation measures).

Or are conservationists opposing water transfers? But then how does transferring water from a rice farmer to a city affect the amount of water delivered to nature preserves? Neither the rice farm nor the city is a nature preserve. Transferring water from one entity that's not a nature preserve to another entity that's not a nature preserve doesn't affect how much water gets to the nature preserve.

1 - AF is an acronym for acre-foot, a unit of volume commonly used in the US for water resources. It equals approximately 1233 m3 (cubic metres).

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Philipp
    Commented May 10, 2022 at 10:39
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    Having moved the comments to chat, the same questions are resurfacing under the answer... basically, the "ownership" in this case is nowhere as clear as a farmer owning a tractor or livestock. They are water access rights, not water ownership. Commented May 10, 2022 at 21:21

3 Answers 3


First point: farmers who sell their water aren't farmers anymore. Both cash crops and livestock are water-intensive, and while farmers could shift to more water-friendly activities (away from nuts, fruits, and beef), that would have a tremendous economic impact on both them and the state.

Second point: the central valley (where much of California's agriculture lies) and the southern metropolises are dry. Their water comes from underground aquifers, is drawn from the San Francisco Bay delta south through the aqueduct system, is brought west from the Colorado river, or is collected in government-constructed artificial reservoirs. As such, water allotments are given to agriculture and cities, not owned by agricultural and cities. If any given allotment is not used by the allotee, it is kept in the system to be used elsewhere. While I'm sure there's wastage, water is far too valuable a commodity in California for flagrant waste.

California water politics is an ugly, angry, convoluted business, but environmentalists are not the major players. Environmentalists do get upset about potential damage to the wetlands of the delta, but the real fight is between agriculturalists (who want more water to follow high-value pursuits like almonds and cattle) and cities (which need water for economic growth and the health and welfare of their citizens).

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    @personal_cloud No, because they are paying to use it not to buy and own it.
    – Joe W
    Commented May 10, 2022 at 0:45
  • 55
    @personal_cloud No. That's not what this answer describes. What is happening is that water transfer is not allowed because in 99.9% of the cases the water does not belong to the landowner. The landowner only owns the "allotments" - basically the right to buy water, not the water itself. The owner of the water has decided to not let buyers of water to resell their right to other parties. It's kind of like stadiums banning ticket scalping
    – slebetman
    Commented May 10, 2022 at 8:07
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    @AzorAhai-him- a farmer who sells water in their allotment is no longer acting as a farmer in the context of why that sold water was allotted to them, i.e. they are not using that water for farming. Commented May 10, 2022 at 20:42
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    @AzorAhai-him- well, the comments under the question got moved to chat, but the gist is that they got a preferential deal on that water, in order to farm with it. if they don't farm then why should they not pay the same price as everyone else for water? the seeds would (normally) be different - they are actually the farmers full property - they paid for them at market price. basically there is a water price for farming (up to allotment limits) and a water price for everyone else. This is essentially a legal covenant. Commented May 10, 2022 at 21:17
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica You should put the part about how they got it at a discount into an answer, it makes things a lot clearer. Commented May 10, 2022 at 22:09

Part of this seems to just be that the PDF you are referencing is out of date (last updated March 21st, it is now May 10th) and part of it seems to be that the application requires a public comments period which means the whole process takes a long time--around two months. Looking at the comment deadlines and order deadlines on that spreadsheet, none of those would have been over the order deadline when the spreadsheet was last updated, and most would have been just barely past the comments period.

The old Transfers and Temporary Urgency Actions - Orders page seems to have ever-so-slightly more recent information, specifically an order approving one of the request on that spreadsheet with an order date of April 1st. But the entire website seems to be undergoing some kind of redesign, so it seems possible that some or many of these may have been approved and just not posted on the website.

Finally, water transfer is probably quite seasonal. Looking at past years it seems that a majority of the transfer petitions were received in April and May and relatively few in January-March, so just judging by January-March doesn't give a clear picture (it is not 1/4 of the total).

  • Good point. While, there are some notable cases where large water transfers were outright rejected, there might be other cases (maybe even for the PDF I referenced) where the transfers will be accepted. Nonetheless, as you note, the process is slow and full of red tape, so the overall effect is still to discourage transfers. It doesn't seem that water districts can just call up a broker and get the lowest open asking price. Commented May 11, 2022 at 20:20
  • @personal_cloud A large part of the process seems to be the public comment period, which simply requires time. If you want the public to be able to comment seriously then you have to notify them that something is happening and then allow time for people to hear about it and come back with comments, it's no good posting about it at 2pm and saying "well, we didn't get any comments" at 3pm. Then if there are comments the board has further time to (presumably) assess the comments before making a decision. Commented May 11, 2022 at 21:07
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    And why the public has any right to comment, the link you have provides some background--farmers get a subsidy/discount on water prices, bought from the state (public). I doubt that farmers would be as excited about a proposal where they bought water at full price and could sell it with no questions asked. Commented May 11, 2022 at 21:13
  • 2
    I doubt that farmers would be as excited about a proposal where they bought water at full price and could sell it with no questions asked. That might depend on whether they get the subsidy some other way. I've posted a separate question on that. Commented May 12, 2022 at 1:20

Ted's answer points out that the system is intended to subsidize certain water uses. This, on its own, could be addressed by subsidizing desired water products instead of the water itself.

However, another issue is that transferring water diverts reclaimable runoff and groundwater recharge in many cases. So the underlying question here is how to compensate for reclaimable water runoff.

  • Is this an answer to the question, or are you replying to Ted, or asking a new question about compensation?
    – James K
    Commented May 17, 2022 at 21:09
  • @James. Yes. It is an answer to the question that puts Ted's answer in context, and relates the question to a new question that I opened. Commented May 18, 2022 at 19:09
  • The question was "when can water not be transferred in California". I don't think that after reading this I would understand better when water cannot be transferred. So for me this is not useful as an answer.
    – James K
    Commented May 18, 2022 at 19:17
  • @James I understand that you are happy with Ted's answer. And indeed I accepted it as a good starting point. However, as one of the commenters already noted, Ted's answer doesn't clearly explain the issue with runoff/recharge diversion. Since the agricultural subsidies can be addressed separately in better ways, the runoff/recharge diversion is a bigger problem, and are thus a better answer to the question of why transfers are not allowed. So, while I understand that some people are satisfied with partial answers, others want to know the details of what it would take to improve the system. Commented May 19, 2022 at 22:34

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