California’s area of origin statutes were forged in the conflict between residents of Owens Valley and the City of Los Angeles in the early 20th century. This struggle climaxed in 1927 when deeply frustrated Owens Valley advocates seized the Alabama Hills diversion gates for the Los Angeles Aqueduct and later detonated a bomb that severed an aqueduct pipeline.
This episode eclipsed even Mark Twain’s apocryphal quote about fighting, drinking, water, and whiskey. This was water policy hardball, the likes of which weren’t seen before and haven’t been seen since.
But this episode begs a question: What are “area of origin” water rights?
An area of origin is generally considered an area where the headwaters of a river or other significant water body originates. The “area” may be a county, region, or other geographic region of the state.
This concept is addressed specifically in area of origin statutes. The state legislature took the Owens Valley conflict in consideration when it authorized planning of a “Central Valley Project,” ultimately passing a law, authorizing the state to file for water rights. Upon enactment of the law (Water Code Section 10500- 10506), the state filed the first group of applications augmenting an earlier (1925) State Water Plan (Bulletin 12).
As Porter Towner, former Chief Counsel of the California Department of Water Resources told a Ukiah audience in October 1964 (before the Eel River and other north coast streams were deleted from the State Water Project), “As early as 1925, attempts had been made to provide legislative assurances to counties of origin that necessary water supplies would be reserved for them. These attempts reached fruition in 1931, when the county of origin law…was enacted.”
- Watershed of Origin Statute: Water Code Section 11460 to 11463, passed in 1933 as part of the Central Valley Project Act (pdf)
- Delta Protection Act 1959: Water Code Section 12200 to 12205, passed in 1959 at the same time as the Burns Porter Act authorizing the State Water Project (pdf)
- County of Origin Statute: Water Code Section 10500 to 10506, enacted in 1931
Areas of California beyond the scope of water rights encompassed by the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project do not receive water right reservations under these laws. This means that the areas of origin for San Francisco’s Hetch Hetchy water supply, East Bay MUD’s Mokelumne River water supply, and Los Angeles’ Owens Valley and Mono Basin supplies are exempt from area of origin rights.
These laws have never been tested in court, so no one knows exactly what it means to have area of origin rights, or just how these rights would be quantified. In January 1955, then-attorney general Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Sr. (who would become governor in 1959) issued an opinion about area of origin laws.