California State Water Resources Control Board
The California State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) is one of six branches of the California Environmental Protection Agency.
This regulatory program has had the status of an official government department since the 1950s. The State Water Pollution Control Board, as well as 9 regional boards, were established by the Dickey Water Pollution Act of 1949. The board was renamed to the State Water Quality Control Board by an Act of 1963. The State Water Resources Control Board was established from the State Water Quality Control Board and the State Water Rights Board by an Act of 1967.
California’s pioneering clean water act is the 1969 Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act (Porter-Cologne Act). Through the Porter-Cologne Act, the State Water Board and the Regional Water Boards have been entrusted with broad duties and powers to preserve and enhance all beneficial uses of the state’s immensely complex waterscape. The Porter-Cologne Act is recognized as one of the nation’s strongest pieces of anti-pollution legislation, and was so influential that Congressional authors used sections of the Act as the basis for the Federal Clean Water Act.
The late SWRCB chairman, Don Maughan, wrote:
"The State Water Board has never had the luxury of advocating protection of just one water need, such as the environment or agriculture or that of large cities. Our charge is to balance all water needs of the state. Some call it a superhuman task, but through the years this Board, aided by its excellent staff, has done what I call a superhuman job of accomplishing that mandate despite the intensive historical, political, and economic pressures that always accompany California water issues."
The State Water Board oversees the allocation of the state’s water resources to various entities and for diverse uses, from agricultural irrigation to hydro electrical power generation to municipal water supplies, and for safeguarding the cleanliness and purity of Californians’ water for everything from bubble baths to trout streams to ocean beaches.
The State Water Board is separate from and has different responsibilities than the Department of Water Resources (DWR), which manages state-owned water infrastructure, such as dams, reservoirs and aqueduct. DWR, like any other water user, must apply for water rights permits from the State Water Board.
Under the Federal Clean Water Act and the state’s pioneering Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act the State Water Board has regulatory authority for protecting the water quality of nearly 1,600,000 acres (6,500 km2) of lakes, 1,300,000 acres (5,300 km2) of bays and estuaries, 211,000 miles (340,000 km) of rivers and streams, and about 1,100 miles (1,800 km) of exquisite California coastline.
The State Water Board also provides financial assistance to local governments and non-profit agencies to help build or rejuvenate wastewater treatment plants, and protect, restore and monitor water quality, wetlands, and estuaries. It also administers a fund to help underground storage tank owners and operators pay for the costs of cleaning up leaking underground storage tanks.
The State Water Board coordinates the state’s nine Regional Water Quality Control Boards (Regional Water Boards), which serve as the frontline for state and federal water pollution control efforts. Together, the State Water Board and the nine Regional Water Boards are referred to as the California Water Boards.
The Water Quality Division of the State Water Board develops statewide water protection plans and establishes water quality standards like the California Bays and Estuaries Policy. The Division has two branches: a surface water branch and a groundwater branch. The surface water branch focuses on monitoring and regulating storm water discharges and wastewater (sewage) treatment. It also monitors surface water quality, oversees protection of wetlands and the ocean, is active in environmental education and environmental justice issues, identifies and oversees clean-up of contaminated sites, and promotes low-impact development (LID). The groundwater branch provides statewide guidance and oversight for discharges to land and cleanup of sites with contaminated groundwater.
The Water Rights Division of the State Water Board allocates surface water rights based on the state's extremely complex system of water rights laws, and assists Board members in exercising the Board’s judicial power in water rights disputes. The State Water Board is solely responsible for issuing permits for water rights, specifying amounts, conditions, and construction timetables for diversion and storage. Decisions about water rights are based on such factors as water availability, historical water rights, and flows needed to preserve in-stream uses, such as recreation and fish habitat.
California recognizes several different types of rights to take and use surface water. Some water rights can only be held by government. These include pueblo rights, which can only be held by municipalities that were originally Mexican or Spanish pueblos, and federal reserved rights, which can only be held by the federal government.
For the purpose of administering water rights, California categorizes groundwater as either a subterranean stream flowing through a known and definite channel or percolating groundwater. Groundwater that is a subterranean stream is subject to the same water right permitting requirements as surface water. California has no statewide water right permit process for regulating the use of percolating groundwater. A subterranean stream meets the following four characteristics: (1) A subsurface channel must be present; (2) The channel must have relatively impermeable bed and banks; (3) The course of the channel must be known or capable of being determined by reasonable inference; and (4) Groundwater must be flowing in the channel.
In most areas of the state, landowners whose property overlies percolating groundwater may pump it for beneficial use without approval from the State Water Board or a court. In several basins, however, groundwater use is regulated in accordance with court decrees. Further, in Ventura, Los Angeles, San Bernardino, and Riverside counties, groundwater pumpers are required to report their groundwater extraction amounts to either the State Water Board or a local groundwater management agency.
Laws and Regulations
The State Water Board and the Regional Water Boards are responsible for swift and fair enforcement when the laws and regulations protecting California's waterways are violated. The State Water Board's Office of Enforcement assists and coordinates enforcement activities statewide.
Enforcement serves many purposes. First and foremost, it assists in protecting the beneficial uses of waters of the State. Swift and firm enforcement can prevent pollution from occurring and can promote prompt cleanup and correction of existing pollution problems. Enforcement ensures compliance with requirements in State Water Board and Regional Water Board regulations, plans, policies, and orders. Enforcement not only protects the public health and the environment, but also creates an "even playing field," ensuring that dischargers who comply with the law are not placed at a competitive disadvantage by those who do not. It also deters potential violators and, thus, further protects the environment. Monetary remedies provide a measure of compensation for the damage that pollution causes to the environment and ensure that polluters do not gain an economic advantage from violations of water quality laws.
The State Water Board is currently revising its water quality enforcement policy with the goal of creating an enforcement system that addresses water quality problems in the most efficient, effective, and consistent manner.
The State Water Board’s Division of Financial Assistance (DFA) has a number of programs designed to help local agencies and individuals prevent or clean up water pollution. The DFA provides loans and grants for constructing municipal sewage and water recycling facilities, remediation for underground storage tank releases, watershed protection projects, and for nonpoint source pollution control projects. (Nonpoint source pollution usually involves contaminants flowing into a body of water from diffuse sources such as runoff from storm water, which may contain road dirt or fertilizers and pesticides from lawns, as well as water that collects debris from construction sites and fecal matter from barnyards and flows into nearby rivers, streams and lakes.)
The DFA has allocated about 4 billion dollars for the construction of sewage treatment plants in communities throughout the state through the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (SRF) program. Also, a billion and a half dollars in bond funds have gone to communities for water quality protection, including water quality planning, treatment of storm water and clean beaches since 2000.
DFA also administers the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRI) funds through the State Revolving Fund. The money awarded is in the form of grants and ultra-low interest zero and one-percent loans for projects that include wastewater treatment plant construction, upgrade and infrastructure improvements as well as “green” projects such as wastewater recycling. Under the 2009 stimulus program, the State Water Board handled $270.5 million in addition to more than $300 million normally loaned by the SRF each year.
State Water Board members are appointed to four-year terms by the governor and are confirmed by the State Senate. Each salaried member fills a different specialty position. Positions include civil engineer, professional engineer, water quality expert, attorney member/water rights expert and public member.
Current members are Felicia Marcus, Frances Spivy-Weber, Tam Doduc, Steven Moore, and Dorene D'Adamo.
Felicia Marcus is currently the Board Chair. Before her appointment to the Water Board, Felicia was the Western Director for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a national environmental leader in bringing science, law, and policy expertise to solving our world’s pressing environmental and conservation challenges. Felicia also served as the Regional Administrator of the U.S. EPA Region IX in the Clinton Administration where she was known for her work in bringing unlikely allies together for environmental progress and for making the agency more responsive to the communities it serves, particularly Indian Tribes, communities of color, local government, and agricultural and business interests. While at EPA, Felicia worked extensively on the range of environmental issues under EPA’s jurisdiction, most heavily in air quality, Bay-Delta water, tribal, and US-Mexico border issues.
Francis Spivy-Weber (Redondo Beach), serves as Board Vice-Chair and public member. She served as the executive director of the Mono Lake Committee since 1997 until her appointment to the Board. From 1983 to 1992, Spivy-Weber served as the director of international programs for the National Audubon Society.
Tam Doduc is civil engineer on the Board. Before appointment to the State Water Board, she served as Deputy Secretary at Cal/EPA, where she directed environmental justice and external scientific peer review activities. She is a licensed civil engineer.
Steven Moore has worked over 20 years on water issues as a consultant and as both staff and a Board Member with the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Board. His experience includes preparing Environmental Impact Reports, conducting engineering studies, developing project plans and specifications, and managing Water Quality Control Plans. He has experience in NPDES and wetland permitting, water quality standards, watershed and stream protection policies, development of the Board’s Surface Water Ambient Monitoring Program (SWAMP), and statewide coordination of water quality programs. He is a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers.
Dorene D'Adamo was appointed to the board by Governor Brown in 2013. She previously served on the California Air Resources Board from 1999-2013 under the Brown, Schwarzenegger and Davis Administrations, where she was instrumental in the board's air quality and climate change programs and regulations.
Tom Howard is the executive director of the State Water Board. Prior to is appointment, Howard had been with the Water Board, in a variety of increasingly responsible positions, from 1984 to mid-2010. Until July 2010 he served as Chief Deputy Director. He is a registered Professional Chemical Engineer and holds a B.A. from UC Berkeley and master's degrees from both Cal Tech and UC Davis.
Regional Water Quality Control Boards
The nine semi-autonomous Regional Water Boards were created in 1949 by the Dickey Water Pollution Act and have been responsible for protecting the surface, ground and coastal waters of their regions since then.
In adopting the Dickey Act the Legislature was acknowledging that California's water pollution problems are regional, and are affected by rain and snowfall, the configuration of the land, and population density, as well as recreational, agricultural, urban and industrial development, all of which vary from region to region.
The Regional Water Boards develop basin plans for their natural geographic characteristics that affect the overland flow of water in their area, govern requirements for and issue waste discharge permits, take enforcement action against dischargers who violate permits or otherwise harm water quality in surface waters, and monitor water quality.
The Regional Water Boards are unusual in this state because their boundaries follow natural mountain chains and ridges that define watersheds rather than political boundaries.
The 9 Regional Water Quality Control Boards are the:
- North Coast RWQCB - rivers draining to the Pacific Ocean between the Oregon border and Tomales Bay
- San Francisco Bay RWQCB - rivers draining to San Francisco Bay (except the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers) and to the Pacific Ocean from Tomales Bay south to Pescadero Creek.
- Central Coast RWQCB - rivers draining to the Pacific Ocean from Pescadero Point south through Santa Barbara County.
- Los Angeles RWQCB - rivers draining to the Pacific Ocean in Ventura and Los Angeles Counties.
- Central Valley RWQCB - the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers and their tributaries.
- Lahontan RWQCB - rivers draining into the Great Basin.
- Colorado River Basin RWQCB - the Colorado River and tributaries.
- Santa Ana RWQCB - rivers draining to the Pacific Ocean from Huntington Beach south to Newport Beach.
- San Diego RWQCB - rivers draining to the Pacific Ocean from Laguna Beach south to the border with Baja California, Mexico.
Reports and portals
- Performance report
The Water Boards released a first-of-its-kind Performance Report in 2009 describing the performance of the State and Regional Water Boards in protecting California's waters through implementation of existing water quality and water rights laws.
- "My water quality"
Along with the Performance Report, the Water Boards led the State's Water Quality Monitoring Council's effort to launch a coordinated, statewide web portal named "My water quality" that communicates the actual quality of California’s waters. These tools are being continuously improved and will soon describe actual targets for environmental improvement over the coming years.
- CAL EPA
- California Department of Water Resources
- Native American Rights
- Southern California Coastal Water Research Project
- U.S. Bureau of Land Management
- United States Bureau of Reclamation
- Index: Water in California
- CAL-EPA: SWRCB history
- Dickey Water Pollution Act, Cal. Stats. 1949, Ch. 1549, enacted July 28, 1949
- Cal. Stats. 1963, Ch. 1463, enacted July 13, 1963
- Cal. Stats. 1967, Ch. 284
- Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act, Cal. Stats. 1969, Ch. 482
- CA Dept. of Conservation: California Watershed Portal
- CSWRQCB: Water Quality Division
- CSWRCB: Water rights
- CSWRQCB: Enforcement
- CSWRQCB: Grants and loans
- Megerian, Chris (April 14, 2015). "State water regulator flexes new muscle in response to drought". Los Angeles Times.
- CSWRQCB: Regional Water Quality Control Boards — locator map, with links
- Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board: homepage . accessed 7.14.2013
- Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board: homepage . accessed 7.14.2013
- CSWRQCB: Performance Report
- CSWRQCB: "My water quality"
- Becerra, Hector (September 25, 2014) "Drought has 14 communities on the brink of waterlessness" Los Angeles Times
- California Water Code
- Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act — complete text with 12-28-2012 revisions, effective 1 January 2013.
- Native American Rights
- GAMA – Groundwater Ambient Monitoring & Assessment Program-Geotracker
- California Dept. of Public Health: programs
- U.S. Bureau of Land Management: California water laws
- Local Oversight Agencies
- United States Bureau of Reclamation: Water index
- Non-fiction - "Cadillac Desert"; by Marc Reisner.