Washington Journal of Environmental Law & Policy


Zoe A. Wong


California maintains a complex system of water rights, with the State Water Resources Control Board as the premiere administrative agency overseeing it. The State Water Resources Control Board has the ability, for example, to investigate water usage and implement regulations. However, when it comes to adjudicating water rights disputes, the agency’s power is not absolute. Under the California Supreme Court’s holding in National Audubon v. Superior Court of Alpine County, the trial court shares concurrent jurisdiction with the State Water Resources Control Board over water rights disputes. As California faces extreme drought conditions and climate change, legal battles over precious water resources have intensified and have brought National Audubon to the forefront. This comment begins by reviewing the existing framework for water rights in California and analyzing the court’s decision in National Audubon. It then proceeds to explain how changed circumstances—namely, drought and climate change—render the current system unworkable. Finally, this comment advocates for abolishing the doctrine of concurrent jurisdiction for water rights disputes in favor of administrative exhaustion through legislative amendment. Doing so would eliminate confusion in litigation, give deference to the State Water Resources Control Board’s technical expertise, and better prepare California for an increasingly dry future.

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