Background and Challenge

Drought in Northern California’s Russian River watershed threatens entire ways of life. From ancient redwood forests to chaparral and farms in wide valleys, the watershed sustains so much, including Pomo tribal communities, towns and cities such as Ukiah and Cloverdale, agriculture, and aquatic life. Yet, for reasons amplified by climate change, there’s now inadequate water for all needs in the region. Getting people to agree on the best approach to the crisis has presented challenges. The State of California’s water rights laws are based on seniority, which mostly depends on the date of a claim to water. During shortages, senior rights-holders can use water before those with junior rights. When an earlier attempt to deal with the drought appealed to community solidarity, the results were insufficient, and the state curtailed water use across the board—an approach that did not seem either fair or efficient to most water users.

Our Approach

At the request of California’s Water Resources Control Board, CBI worked with a range of Russian River users, with the emphasis especially on bringing together both senior and junior rights-holders. Through this process, facilitated by CBI, those with different water rights were able to find their way to a creative resolution: a volunteer system for sharing water. After participants evaluated their options, an agreement was reached that could limit severely imposed curtailment. Now, rather than most people getting no water, everyone who participates will at least get some water, which can help save crops from devastation. The agreement works in part by adhering to terms and concepts of California’s water rights laws; participants have maintained senior water rights while agreeing to reduce water use by up to 25% in 2022 and 50–60% if needed in future years.


With this agreement, all contributing water rights-holders, including seniors, make their water available to participating junior rights-holders, and they all avoid the likelihood of curtailment and maintain water rights for the long term. The voluntary water-sharing agreement created an innovative way to act during the drought. From varied and conflicting perspectives, stakeholders came to cooperate in order to sustain this crucial watershed. As CNN’s report on this process pointed out, the agreement relies on “a novel approach,” one that uses the old, established laws that once posed a challenge for addressing water shortages.