Water Rights in Oregon


You are finally ready to buy that piece of rural property in central Oregon. The one you’ve dreamed about for years, with water rights for a pasture or for agriculture or for a pond or for [fill in your vision here]. Besides all the usual things that a prospective purchaser looks into before finalizing a property deal, a bit of research into the water rights attached to your dream purchase would be prudent.

Normally, water rights are attached to the land described by the right; when that land is sold the water right is sold, along with the land, to the new owner. However, exceptions do exist.

The Oregon Water Resources Department oversees water rights in Oregon. Be aware – not all Oregon water rights are equal. Is the property served by an irrigation district? If yes, it would be wise to meet with the irrigation district beforehand and learn about the details of the water right associated with the property.

What if your dream parcel is not served by an irrigation district? Several types of “exempt use” where no water right is required are legal as long as the water is used for a beneficial purpose without waste. Exempt groundwater uses include stock watering, irrigation of up to ½ acre of noncommercial garden or lawn, domestic purposes up to 15,000 gallons per day and a few more. Exempt surface water uses include stock watering (with restrictions), emergency firefighting and a few more.

If your intended water use is not included in an irrigation district’s water right or is not an exempt use, a water right will be needed in order to legally use water on that parcel.

A water right could be in the application stage (it is not yet ok to use the requested water right). The right could be a permit (the application has been approved by WRD and water can be used on the property, but certain permit conditions and time limits must be met, and a water right certificate must be applied for). The right could be a certificate (the water right has been perfected, or proven up, and is valid as long as it is used at least once every five years).

The right could be part of a transfer (the water right holder requested certain changes be made to the right, WRD agreed with those changes, and now the right holder must meet the conditions and time limits spelled out in the transfer Final Order, and apply for a new certificate).

Does all this sound overwhelming? No need to panic, help is available.

The Water Resources Department has an excellent website to assist in identifying if a water right is attached to a parcel of land, and what type of right it is (http://www.oregon.gov/owrd/Pages/wr/index.aspx).

Another excellent source of information is the county Watermaster’s office. Real estate agents, water rights examiners, water lawyers and water well drillers are among the numerous professionals that can help identify if a water right is attached to a piece of land and decipher the details of that water right.

And don’t forget to ask the rural neighbors – there is a good chance they hold a water right similar to the one attached to your dream parcel.

Terry Sprecher is a professional geologist, environmental scientist and Oregon-certified Water Rights Examiner at Sprecher Group www.sprechergroup.com. She can be reached at 541-306-3709 or terry.sprecher@bendbroadband.com.


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