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Oregon Water Laws
water management in Oregon
The Water Code

Under Oregon law, all water is publicly owned. With some exceptions, cities, farmers, factory owners, and other water users must obtain a permit or water right from the Water Resources Department to use water from any source— whether it is underground, or from lakes or streams. Generally speaking, landowners with water flowing past, through, or under their property do not automatically have the right to use that water without a permit from the Department.
Prior Appropriation

Oregon’s water laws are based on the principle of prior appropriation. This means the first person to obtain a water right on a stream is the last to be shut off in times of low streamflows. In water-short times, the water right holder with the oldest date of priority can demand the water specified in their water right regardless of the needs of junior users. If there is a surplus beyond the needs of the senior right holder, the water right holder with the next oldest priority date can take as much as necessary to satisfy needs under their right and so on down the line until there is no surplus or until all rights are satisfied. The date of application for a permit to use water usually becomes the priority date of the right.
East of the Mississippi, the riparian doctrine usually applies. Under the riparian doctrine, only landowners with water flowing through their property have claims to the water. The prior appropriation doctrine is the basis of water law for most of the states west of the Mississippi River. In Oregon, the prior appropriation doctrine has been law since February 24, 1909, when passage of the first unified water code introduced state control over the right to use water. Before then, water users had to depend on themselves or local courts to defend their rights to water.
Generally, Oregon law does not provide a preference for one kind of use over another. If there is a conflict between users, the date of priority determines who may use the available water. If the rights in conflict have the same date of priority, then the law indicates domestic use and livestock watering have preference over all other uses. However, if a drought is declared by the Governor, the Department can give preference to stock watering and household consumptive purposes, regardless of the priority dates of the other users. Ground water rights for geothermal uses, such as heating or air conditioning, are always junior in priority to other uses of water unless the water is also used for another purpose, such as irrigation, or injected back into the ground water reservoir.
An example of prior appropriation at work
Prior appropriation ensures that the first water user to obtain water rights has first access to water in times of shortage. If a “downstream” landowner has the earlier priority date (they initiated their water right in 1910) the “upstream” landowner may have to let the water pass unused to meet the needs of the senior, downstream water right holder.

Some uses of water are exempt from the requirement to obtain a permit. These are called “exempt uses.”
Exempt uses of surface water include:
1. Natural springs: use of a spring that, under natural conditions, does not form a natural channel and flow off the property where it originates at any time of the year.
2. Stock watering: where stock drink directly from a surface water source and there is no diversion or other modification to the source. Also, use of water for stock watering from a permitted reservoir to a tank or trough, and, under certain conditions, use of water piped from a surface source to an off-stream livestock watering tank or trough.
3. Salmon: egg incubation projects under the Salmon and Trout Enhancement Program (STEP) are exempt. Also, water used for fish screens, fishways, and bypass structures.
4. Fire control: the withdrawal of water for emergency fire fighting or certain non-emergency fire fighting training.
5. Forest management: certain activities such as slash burning and mixing pesticides. To be eligible, a user must notify the Department and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and must comply with any restrictions imposed by the Department relating to the source of water that may be used.
6. Certain land management practices: where water use is not the primary intended activity.
7. Rainwater: collection and use of rainwater from an artificial impervious surface (like a parking lot or a building’s roof).

Exempt uses of groundwater include:
1. Stock watering.
2. Lawn or noncommercial garden: watering of not more than one-half acre in area.
3. Single or group domestic purposes: not exceeding 15,000 gallons per day.
4. Single industrial or commercial purposes: not exceeding 5,000 gallons per day.  Does not include irrigation or watering to promote plant growth.
5. Down-hole heat exchange uses.
6. Watering school grounds: ten acres or less, of schools located within a critical ground water area.
Note:  While these water uses do not require a permit, the use is only allowed if the water is used for a “beneficial purpose without waste” and may be subject to regulation in times of water shortage.
Wells supplying water for exempt groundwater uses must comply with Oregon’s minimum well construction standards for the construction, maintenance, and abandonment of any well.
Commission and Department
1. Oregon Water Laws
water management in Oregon
2. Protections and Restrictions
managing water appropriations
3. New Water Rights
gaining authorization to use water
4. Other Water Rights
authorization for water use
5. Transferring Rights
existing rights for new users
6. Canceling Rights
loss of water rights through non-use
7. Conservation
encouraging efficient water use
8. Finding Water Rights
determining if you have a water right
9. Enforcing Water Laws
watermasters and field staff protecting rights and resources
10. Region Managers and Offices
11. Fees
Appendix A
other development permits
Water Measurement Conversions