In Oregon, the access to and use of almost all water for irrigation is regulated by the Water Resources Department (“WRD”). A vested state water right is an asset to any property. Knowing your rights can help you protect a sufficient supply of water and to accurately value land when buying or selling it.

WHAT IS A WATER RIGHT? Oregon law provides that “all water from all sources of supply belongs to the public”. Waters of the State may be appropriated for private use only by following the procedures provided for under state law. A landowner who follows these procedures through to a successful completion acquires a water right. The right is memorialized in a Water Right Certificate, a copy of which is kept on file at WRD.

WHY DO I NEED A WATER RIGHT? With limited exceptions, a water right is required for surface or groundwater on your property. In times of water shortage, a water right gives you priority over persons with rights obtained later in time, even if they are upstream.

WHAT DOES A WATER RIGHT SECURE? A water right authorizes you to take a specific amount of surface or groundwater and apply it to a specified commercial beneficial use. Common beneficial uses recognized by statute for include farming, domestic supply, irrigation, commercial, and fish & wildlife.

WHERE CAN I USE MY WATER RIGHT? A water right is connected to a specified area on one or more parcels of land. Water use on other property, even if owned by the holder of the water right, is not permitted. Landowners can go through procedures to transfer a water right to a different piece of property. Usually, a water right remains with the land if the parcel is sold.

CAN I LOSE MY WATER RIGHTS? A water right remains valid only if it is used at least once every five years. After five consecutive years of non-use, the right is considered forfeited. In the event a water right is lost, a land owner has several options to obtain water for irrigation. The landowner may: (a) apply for a new surface water right; (b) apply for a new groundwater right; (c) buy or lease an existing water right and transfer it; or (d) lease water from another user if the property is in an irrigation district. In some parts of the county, very limited or no new water rights to divert water for irrigation during the summer and fall are available.

HOW DO I ACQUIRE A WATER RIGHT? A water right is acquired by filing an application with WRD. If the application is granted, WRD will issue you a permit to appropriate water. Then it’s up to you to complete your project and get the water applied to the entire acreage described in the application within the time specified in the permit (generally three years).  Farmers can apply to the WRD for extensions of time for completing construction. When construction is complete you must submit to WRD evidence that the permitted amount of water has been diverted and applied to the specified use. If WRD is satisfied with this proof, it issues a water right “certificate,” which is conclusive, lasting proof of the water right.

DO I NEED A WATER RIGHT TO DRAW WATER FROM MY WELL? A water right permit or certificate is required in order to appropriate any water of the state, including groundwater. However, there are several uses which are exempt from permitting requirements.  A landowner can use up to 15,000 gallons per day for purposes related to the residential use of property, such as human consumption, household uses and domestic animal watering. Also, water may be used for watering livestock and for irrigation of up to one-half acre of lawn or noncommercial garden.  These groundwater exemptions, if applicable, mean that the water may be used without going through state permitting, or even registration, processes. IS

MY FARM IN A GROUNDWATER MANAGEMENT AREA? Certain parts of the Marion County have been designated critical Groundwater Management Areas.  If your property is in a Groundwater Management area, you may not be able to secure a right to use groundwater if you do not already have one, and you may not be entitled to exemptions and might be subject to additional restrictions such as seasonal limitations and monitoring requirements. Refer to the included map.

DO PONDS NEED WATER RIGHTS? Man-made ponds, reservoirs and other impoundments of water generally require two types of water right permit: a permit to construct an impoundment, and a permit for the quantity of water to be impounded. These include county, state and federal permits and require engineered plans, and attaining permits can be time consuming and costly.

WHAT ABOUT MY NEIGHBOR’S USE OF WATER? Water is becoming a scarce and valuable resource, and one landowner’s use of it often impacts other users in the same area. It’s a good business practice to be aware of the water rights of farms around you. WRD has two information tools that can help you get information. First, WRD publishes a weekly notice containing all water right applications, transfer applications, and WRD administrative actions. The notices are available on the WRD’s web site. Second, WRD’s computer filing system may be accessed   online at “”. This filing system can be searched for a parcel of land; by address, or Township, Range and Section, or the original water rights petitioner.  Water rights are filed under the original applicant for the permit, not the current landowner.

WHEN SHOULD I THINK ABOUT WATER RIGHTS? There are two times it’s important to review your water rights.  The first time is prior to the purchase or sale of land.  Water rights are valuable assets to a parcel of real property, and it is important to understand the water rights attached to a parcel before buying or selling it. The most important questions include: What is the priority date of the water right? The earlier the priority date, the more secure the source of water, even during a drought. What lands are covered by the right? Water may be used only on land covered by the water right. Has the right in fact been used? If no water has been used for beneficial purposes during the past five years, the right probably no longer exists. The second time it’s important to review your water rights is right now, on all existing lands.  If you change farming practices, such as changing from a non-irrigated crop and to one that needs irrigation, can you irrigate it?  Are you using all your water rights to ensure they are current?  Are you using them on the right acreage and at the specified rate? This article based on information received from Stoel Rives law firm, established in 1907.


  • Contact the Oregon WRD: Joel Plahn, District 16: 725 Summer St NE, Ste A, Salem, Oregon 97301     Ph: 503-986-0889
  • Contact Marion SWCD at 503.391.9927. Staff can help you look up your water rights.