Why do I need water rights for irrigation?

Many landowners do not know that they need legal water rights to use surface water and groundwater for irrigation.

There are many demands for water: Oregon’s water resources are publicly owned. Even though the water — a stream, for example — runs through your property, it doesn’t belong to you; it belongs to everyone in Oregon. The same is true for groundwater in aquifers deep in the soil. Water is needed for people and animals, city drinking water, and manufacturing, and some must remain in streams and rivers for fish and other aquatic life.

Oregon water law dates back to 1909 and includes four basic provisions.

  1. Beneficial use without waste, by using water for personal and public good
  2. Priority of the water right: “first in time, first in right” concept
  3. The right to use the water is attached to the land
  4. Maintain rights by using the water, at least once every five years

Water rights clearly define the specific use of the water. The right indicates the specific source, where the water can be used and the rate (how much) of the water you can use.

The domestic well that supplies your home with water is not meant to irrigate more than half an acre. It is intended to water a lawn and family garden, not crops grown to sell. If you intend to grow irrigated crops, including pastures, you need to obtain a water right if your property doesn’t have one.

The Oregon Water Resources Department regulates water law, including water rights. To find out if a property has water rights to surface water, go to Water Rights. To find out whether a property's well was drilled specially for irrigation or to learn more about a domestic well, go to the Well Construction and Compliance section to look up a well log.

Applying for new water rights is possible depending on where the property is. Contact your local OWRD Watermaster to find out if applying for a water right seems like a feasible option, if you're having trouble searching for specific water rights or well logs, or if you want to better understand Oregon water law.

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