Understanding Water Rights
FIRST IN TIME, FIRST IN RIGHT
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 shortages. When water is limited, senior water rights holders, those that have the oldest water rights, can use all the water specified on their water right. Junior water right holders, those that have younger water rights, may receive less water or even no water at all. Water rights distribution is based on the date of application for a permit to use water, which is known as the ‘priority date’ of the right.
Irrigation Districts in Central Oregon
There are eight irrigation districts in the Deschutes Basin with water rights to use water from the Deschutes River and its tributaries. These water rights have priority dates ranging from 1899 to 1916. Senior water rights holders have the right to use nearly all the water flowing in the Deschutes River and its tributaries (referred to as “live flows”). Therefore, securing reliable water for the junior irrigators, specifically those in North Unit Irrigation District (the Madras area), requires storing winter flows in Wickiup Reservoir. These stored flows supplement live flows to help meet demands during the irrigation season, nearly tripling the river’s natural flow. When the reservoir doesn’t fill, junior irrigators must make tough decisions, including forgoing planting and fallowing fields.
Where the River Fits In
When prior appropriation was adopted by the State of Oregon in 1909, the goal was to put every drop of water to use to make the land productive. Under Oregon water law, rivers themselves did not legally have water rights until the State passed the Instream Water Rights Act in 1987. Therefore, the water right attributed to the Deschutes River has a priority date of 1987, making the river the most junior water rights holder in the basin. However, senior water rights can be transferred or leased instream, which gives the river the ability to secure older, more reliable water.