Meet the watermaster

Craig Wilson is the force who keeps the Delta in line

As the Delta watermaster, Craig Wilson referees California’s H2O wars.

As the Delta watermaster, Craig Wilson referees California’s H2O wars.


Water allocation is at the heart of an ongoing dispute over the future of California’s largest estuary: the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. The California State Water Resources Control Board said in July that much of the Delta’s water, up to 80 percent, goes to agricultural interests. Others argue that too much water is sent south for use by such agencies as the Metropolitan Water District in Los Angeles.

Into these muddy waters steps Craig Wilson. A graduate of UC Davis and its law school, Wilson is the newly appointed Delta watermaster. The State Water Resources Control Board named its first watermaster in July to monitor and enforce water rights, and SN&R spoke with him about his new role.

How would you explain your job to a grade-school class?

My job is to make sure people follow the rules. Let’s say there was a bag of candy, and each person could only take three pieces of candy. I make sure everyone takes only three pieces of candy, no more or less.

What does a watermaster do?

There are several watermasters in California that act as referees about water use. … The position was created to set up a single point of contact on water rights. The job involves day-to-day administration of those issues and enforcement of water-rights law. It is a mix of things. There is also an enforcement provision to make sure water conveyance and diversion are carried out per the law.

Tell me about how you regulate.

I have authority on all diversions and water appropriations. In a riparian habitat, for example, it could be a question of water use for a project no longer contiguous to riparian land.

In the case of appropriations, people who store water to use later are only entitled to a set amount. So I make sure that is complied with.

The position is also unique because it provides a significant voice on the policy level; part of the job is providing reports to the State Water Resources Control Board and Delta Stewardship Council on water-rights issues, water-quality issues and conveyance operations.

Describe your top priority. Can you provide an example?

I would say it is to make sure people use water efficiently and to use no more than they have. This applies to the big diverters, both the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the California Department of Water Resources, which export water to the south, and to the smaller diverters. It is important they leave enough water to protect the ecosystem.

What is your role in the Bay Delta Conservation Plan?

I have no formal role, but an indirect one. I have a role to play in the Delta Stewardship Council. So, as the Bay Delta Conservation Plan is completed and folded into the Delta Council’s plan, I have the ability to appear before the council and comment on the plan.

What makes you a good fit for the job of Delta watermaster?

I have a unique blend of water expertise and administrative experience. I have worked on water issues for most of my professional career. I was the chief counsel of California’s Water Resources Control Board from 2000 to 2005, and also have been in private practice and can bring that perspective to water law issues.

What is your favorite place on the Delta?

Since I started the job three to four months ago, I have been on several tours of the Delta, and there are a lot of beautiful places, but I don’t have a particular favorite.