Water rights refer to a right to withdraw water from a natural source (i.e., surface water or ground water) and apply it to a beneficial use. State laws usually establish the rules for local water use. Federal laws apply to the use of interstate waters and navigable waters, as well as water rights on federal lands and Indian reservations. Several federal laws also establish environmental standards for water uses.
In Washington, water rights are established through prior appropriation. This doctrine is commonly stated as, “first in time, first in right.” A person who uses water beneficially acquires a right to keep using the same amount of water in the same manner. It is a property right in that it attaches to the land (similar to an easement) and is protected under constitutional laws prohibiting the taking of property without compensation. However, it is not an unconditional right; it can be extinguished by senior rights if supply falls, and it can be lost or reduced through abandonment and waste.
Water rights are obtained in one of three ways:
- By purchasing land with a water right attached
- By transfer
- By permit
Court decisions establish how water rights pass by the sale of land, while water rights transfers and permits are authorized by various statutes and regulations.
The State has a duty to manage its water resources for the benefit of its citizens. How it must fulfill its duty is the subject of the public trust doctrine. States have been held legally responsible for mismanagement in circumstances where their water policies negatively impacted public rights. Many state environmental laws are intended to carry out the state’s public trust responsibilities.
Walla Walla attorney Andrea Burkhart is qualified to assist you with your legal rights and responsibilities regarding water rules and regulations in Washington.