Water Rights

Water Rights

Water rights determine access to water, including who gets water during times of drought.

Image description - Western water law infographic

The image is a visual layout of Western water law that is organized in several boxes. [Box 1 contains the title above a simplified illustration of a mountain range] Western water law. Understanding the doctrine of prior appropriation. [Box 2 contains the following text] What is a water right? A water right is the right to use surface water, groundwater or other water resources. Each state has different rules that define water rights. For most Western states, water rights are based on the principles of prior appropriation and beneficial use. [Box 3 contains the following text] What is prior appropriation? Prior appropriation allocates water rights based on timing of use, place of use, and purpose of use. It allows for diverting water from its source to fill water rights and determines who gets water during times of shortage. [Box 4 contains the following text divided into four quadrants] Types of water rights: [first quadrant] Senior Right, A claim to water that is older (more senior) than those of junior rightsholders. Prior appropriation grants rights based on a priority date. The older the claim, the more secure the right. Senior rights are often associated with farming, ranching and agricultural uses. [second quadrant] Junior Right, A claim to water that is more recent than senior rightsholders. Junior rights are only fulfilled after all senior rights have been met. Junior rights are often associated with municipal, environmental or recreational uses. However senior rights may be bought to secure priority status. [third quadrant] Vested right, In Nevada, vested rights are claims to water that were established before state law required rights to use water. These rights are commonly associated with homesteaders in the rural west. Vested rights have priority over senior and junior rights and are highly valuable. [fourth quadrant] Federal Reserve Right, When land is withdrawn from public domain by the federal government for tribal reservations, national forests or national parks, it holds a federal reserve right. The date that the land was founded or settled by the federal government is the date of the associated water right. [Box 5 contains the following text] Justifying Beneficial Use. What will you use your water for? Agriculture [icon of wheat], Municipal [icon of city], Recreation [icon of swimmer], Industry [icon of smokestack], Mining [icon of mine shaft], several other options for use depending on federal or state regulations. [Box 6 contains the following text] Paper Water Granted! Once you have acquired a water right, this means you have been granted “paper water” – the legal claim to a specific allocation of water for beneficial use. But Wait! Paper water does not equal wet water. “Wet water” is the actual, physical amount of water that is allocated for use in a given year based on your water right. However, during times of shortage some water rights may not be fulfilled. [Box 7 contains the following text in three columns] Limits on appropriative rights [column 1] Priority rules, A junior water right may be reduced or postponed until a senior user fulfills their total allocation. This is based on water availability and is known as water right curtailment. [column 2] Use it or lose it. Beneficial use defines the amount of water that is necessary to meet the stated use. Some water rights might be forfeited if a users’ full allocation is not used each year over a period of five years. [column 3] Federal Regulation, Laws such as the Endangered Species Act can impact water rights. For example, if water use threatens a protected species’ habitat, then curtailment of some water rights may be required to protect it. [A rectangle across the bottom includes a silhouette of cowgirl with hands on her hips and the following text] Most important principles to remember: 1) Prior appropriation grants priority based on the date use begins. This principle is known as “first in time, first in right,” 2) Water rights may be forfeited if not applied to a beneficial use. This principle is known as “use it, or lose it.” [The final box contains the following text] Created by: Shelby Hockaday, Graduate Student, Kerri Jean Ormerod, Assistant Professor, Sources: Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Division of Water Planning, Water Words Dictionary. http://water.nv.gov/WaterPlan-Dictionary.aspx, State of Nevada Division of Water Resources. Water Law Overview. http://water.nv.gov/waterlaw.aspx, Weldon, F. (2003) History of Nevada Water Law and the Western United States. Research Division. Legislative Council Bureau. https://www.leg.state.nv.us/Division/Research/Publications/Bkground/BP03-02.pdf, Copyright © 2020, University of Nevada, Reno Extension. University of Nevada is an EEO/AA institution. Logo of the University of Nevada, Extension. Informational Publication-20-01.