Nicole Kuenzi The Ripple Effect

The Ripple Effect: How Water Law Shapes Our Environment and Societies

Nicole Kuenzi is an adjunct professor at McGeorge School of Law. She also serves as the presiding hearing officer at the Administrative Hearings Office of the State Water Resources Control Board. In a recent webinar, Nicole discussed how water law shapes our environment and societies, focusing on California. Nicole has a particular interest in water law and water rights in the West, which extends globally, especially in arid climates.

A Career Protecting Water Rights and Resources

The State Water Board administers California’s system of water rights, with the Administrative Hearings Office specializing in water rights adjudicative proceedings, established by the Legislature in 2019. As a presiding hearing officer, Nicole conducts water rights hearings, including enforcement proceedings for illegal water diversions and failures to report diversions accurately. She also handles water permitting proceedings related to changes to existing water rights or applications for new water rates.

In her role, Nicole sees a wide range of issues across the State, closely tied to the evolving challenges in water law faced in California and elsewhere in the American West. The interconnected nature of water law and water management with societal values and the world around us is a significant aspect of Nicole’s work. Her interest in this area stems from the rich subject matter and its reflection on the historical development of water law and water management, which tracks the evolution of societal needs and values.

The Importance of Water Law

Water has been recognized since time immemorial as an essential resource necessary for thriving life and communities. “We could point to countless other examples throughout the world and throughout history of this recognition that water is special,” Nicole says. “It’s limited in resources, and it’s absolutely essential to life.”

Nicole Kuenzi emphasizes the importance of water law reflecting the specific hydrologic realities of each region. Aligning legal frameworks with the actual conditions—whether in precipitation, snowpack, groundwater, lakes, or rivers—is crucial. A mismatch between the law and these realities can hinder effective resource management that upholds societal values.

Water Rights in History

Early water law in the American West was initially based on English models, despite significant climate differences. With population growth, there’s a growing need for legal structures that can manage the competing demands for water, a scarce resource. This mismatch often leads to conflicts within Western water law. Over the course of history, water law conflicts and resolutions have shaped communities and the way they function. Landmark court decisions from 1884, 1913, and 1969 among others significantly impacted the future of water law.

One particular recent example occurred in 2014 when California instated the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which requires local management of groundwater resources. This means that the local communities in these regions, which overlay these groundwater basins, can create plans to manage these resources and make value decisions about prioritizing different uses of water.

The Future of Water Management

Nicole expresses optimism for the future of water management, both locally and across the Western United States and globally. She sees opportunities for the evolution of water law to keep pace with changing societal values, whether through common law development or new legislation. She believes there is room for more equitable and effective administration of the law, emphasizing the importance of including diverse viewpoints in discussions about water management that historically may have been overlooked.

“I think actually one of the most important questions that we face in the appropriate governance of water in California and throughout the West, and really throughout the world.

is the question of in the governance structure should be making these types of choices about water management. How should we be making these decisions? Who should be involved? How are these these decisions best made? And I think that’s a really fundamental question for good governance of our limited water resources. And it’s also a wonderful opportunity for the future to think about what your role might be in those choices.”

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