WESTERN WATER LAW

 

Understanding the Doctrine of
Prior Appropriation

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.

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 fulfill water rights and determines who gets water during times of shortage.

TYPES OF WATER RIGHTS

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 water rights are often associated with farming, ranching and agricultural uses.

Junior Right

A claim to water that is more recent than senior rightsholders. Junior rights are 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.

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.

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When land is withdrawn from public domain by the federal government for tribal reservations, national forests or national parks, it holds a federal reserve right.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.

JUSTIFYING BENEFICIAL USE

What will you use water for?

AGRICULTURE

MUNICIPAL

RECREATION

INDUSTRY

MINING

 

 

Several other options for use, depending on federal or state regulations.

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 isn't 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.

LIMITS ON APPROPRIATIVE RIGHTS

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.

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 user’s full allocation is not used each year over a period of five years.

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.

Request PDF Version

If you would like a copy of the PDF version of this infographic, please email Kerri Jean Ormerod at kormerod@unr.edu

Hockaday, S. and Ormerod, K.J. 2020, Western Water Law: Understanding the Doctrine of Prior Appropriation, Extension | University of Nevada, Reno, IP-20-01

Authors of this scholarly work are no longer available.

Please contact Extension's Communication Team for assistance.

 

Also of Interest:

 
tomatoes on the vine
Combatting Salinity: Evaluation of Tomato Rootstocks Under Mild and Severe Salt Stress
This Extension publication reports the results of University of Nevada, Reno Experiment Station research that tested six different commercial tomato rootstocks and one commercial tomato cultivar for salt tolerance under low, moderate and severe salinity levels.
Bonarota, M.S., Barrios-Masias, F.H., & Singletary, L. 2021, Extension, University of Nevada, Reno FS-21-08
yarrow
Groundcover Plants for Southern Nevada: Viable Alternatives to Turfgrass
Groundcover plants are essential for keeping southern Nevada cool. While many desert residents are removing turfgrass to reduce water use, they should consider replacing it with the attractive, drought tolerant alternatives discussed in this publication.
McGue, L., Robinson, M.L., O'Callaghan, A.O. and Leas, L. 2021, Extension, University of Nevada, Reno, FS-21-93
Collaboratively Modeling Reservoir Reoperation to Adapt to Earlier Snowmelt Runoff
A collaborative modeling research program in the Truckee River Basin iteratively convenes researchers and local water managers to (1) assess water management challenges under climate change, (2) identify strategies to adapt water management, (3) prioritize research and modeling...
Sterle, K., Jose, L., Coors, S., Singletary, L., Pohll, G., and Rajagopal, S. 2020, Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management, 146(1), 05019021
Kids Cook - Lesson 02 - Colorful Summer Popsicles
This lesson describes how to create colorful summer popsicles and teaches children how to follow a recipe.
Buffington, A. 2020, Extension | University of Nevada, Reno
Water Sustainability and Climate in the Truckee-Carson River System, Western United States: 10 Key Takeaways from the Water for the Seasons Collaborative Research Program.
This Special Publication briefly introduces the Truckee-Carson River System case study area, describes the Water for the Seasons research program, and presents 10 key takeaways from this five-year collaboration between local water managers and researchers.
Sterle, K., Singletary, L., Lee, G.-E., Rollins, K., Pohll, G., McCarthy, M., Rajagopal, S., Albano, C., Boyer, W., Huntington, J., Dettinger, M., Niswonger, R., Morway, R., Kitlasten, W., Gardner, M., Coors, S., and Jose, L. 2020, Extension I University of Nevada, Reno, SP-20-02.