An Overview of Indian Water Rights in California Part 3: Integrated Regional Water Management (IRWM)
By Mike Godbe, CILS Bishop Office Directing Attorney
This is the third in a three-part series providing an overview of Indian Water Rights in California. This installment focuses on California’s Integrated Regional Water Management grant-funding system. Part 1 on state water rights and part 2 on federal reserved water rights – or Winters rights – may be found here.
A unique feature of California water law is the collaborative water management process known as Integrated Regional Water Management (IRWM). While IRWM projects are a feature of California law and not necessarily a type of “water right,” the unique process presents special opportunities for both federally recognized as well as unrecognized California tribes.
The key benefit – and goal – of IRWM projects is to incentivize stakeholders, that do not often work together but share regional interests in water, to sit down at the table and collaborate on water projects that qualify for state funding. The direct benefit is the grant funding of water-related projects that stakeholders can agree upon. However, the substantial indirect benefit of IRWM is the bringing together of diverse regional stakeholders.
Regional water management groups span multiple jurisdictions and distribute decision-making power among multiple stakeholders. These regional IRWM groups may then apply for funding for water management projects, which have historically been funded by voter-approved bond measures.
Examples of water management projects that have been funded through the IRWM process include ecosystem and habitat restoration, invasive species removal, reuse of wastewater, desalination, water use efficiency projects, and repairs and upgrades of water infrastructure, among others.
Tribal Participation in IRWM Projects
Tribal participation in IRWM groups provides a unique opportunity to participate in regional water decisions, allows tribes to ‘get in the room’ and build relationships with representatives from multiple regional agencies.
Both federally recognized and unrecognized tribes can and should participate in their regional IRWM group to increase tribal representation in regional water decisions, assist with obtaining funding for water projects that benefit their communities, and strengthen relationships with regional governments, agencies, and stakeholders. IRWM regulations do not require tribes to be federally recognized, so IRWM is a unique opportunity for unrecognized tribes to have a seat at the table, build relationships, and directly participate in regional decision-making about water management.
Tribes may benefit from IRWM in two primary ways. First, tribes can get involved with and become participating members of their IRWM Regional Water Management Group and then seek grant funding opportunities as a group. Through collaboration and participation in their local IRWM group, tribes can access grant funding as a local project proponent. Second, tribes can also be the grantee on behalf of an IRWM region.
As of this writing, stakeholders have established 48 regional water management groups covering over 87 percent of California and 99% of its population. Tribes that want to participate in the IRWM process should begin by identifying the IRWM Region(s) located in their area by going to the California Department of Water Resources’ Water Management Planning Tool (interactive online map) and checking the box titled “IRWM Regions” under View Layers. Once you have identified your IRWM Region(s), you may contact one of four regional California Department of Water Resources offices (Northern Region: Red Bluff; North Central Region: West Sacramento; South Central Region: Fresno; Southern Region: Glendale).
Tribes may also participate in the IRWM Roundtable of Regions and reach out directly to the California Department of Water Resources’ Tribal Policy Advisor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 California Department of Water Resources IRWM homepage (https://water.ca.gov/Programs/Integrated-Regional-Water-Management).
 California Department of Water Resources regional office locations and counties supported can be found at https://water.ca.gov/Work-With-Us/Technical-Assistance