Water is an important resource anywhere, and the Rogue Valley is no exception. During the heat of the summer, it is relatively easy to see the lush green of those properties with water rights versus the brown fields of those without.

Those properties with water rights have additional value, and deservedly so, as under Oregon law, all water is publicly owned. Generally speaking, everyone must obtain a permit from the Water Resources Department (Department) to use water.

Oregon’s water law was first adopted in 1909 and is based on the principle of prior appropriation. This means the first person who obtained a water right is the last to be shut off in times of low streamflow. A right to use water, once perfected, is a valuable type of property right that runs with the land when the property is sold.

Some uses of water are exempt from the requirement to obtain a permit, including:

Use of a natural spring if the spring does not flow off the property

Use of water to water animals into a tank or trough

Collection and use of rainwater from a surface like a parking lot or a building’s roof

Watering of not more than ½ acre of lawn or a garden with a domestic well

Use of a well for domestic purposes up to 15,000 gallons per day

Exempt uses are allowed only if water is available and used for a beneficial purpose without waste. It should be noted that wells supplying water for exempt uses must still comply with State well standards.

If a property does not have a water right but water is available, you can apply for a permit to obtain a water right. To obtain a permit, you must first file an application with the Department to use water. Once a permit is granted, you must construct a water system and begin using water. You must next hire a certified water right examiner to inspect and submit a map and report to the Department. If water has been used according to the provisions of the permit, a water right certificate is issued. The water right will continue to be valid as long as the water is used according to the provisions of the water right at least once every five years.

A water right certificate will not guarantee water. Prior appropriation means that water can be diverted only to the extent that it is available. The amount of water available depends on both the water supply and the needs of other senior water rights. The priority of water users is determined by the water use date.

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.

In any instance, like other valuable property rights, it makes sense to know the law when applying for a water right, contesting someone else’s water right, defending your water right, or transferring water rights. With a little diligence, you can assure that your property will have the right to continue to use water in the future.