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MailTribune.com
  • Loss of water rights occurs when approved use changes

  • Recently, you had a few articles about the drought and the issue with many farmers flood-irrigating their fields. The article mentioned that farmers' rights to their allotment of water wouldn't be penalized if they switched to sprinklers or another system that used less water.
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  • Recently, you had a few articles about the drought and the issue with many farmers flood-irrigating their fields. The article mentioned that farmers' rights to their allotment of water wouldn't be penalized if they switched to sprinklers or another system that used less water.
    The article mentioned that the only way to lose water rights is to use the water for an unauthorized purpose, or not to use the water for five consecutive years within the past 15 years. My question is, what are the unauthorized purposes that could result in losing water rights?
    — Mike D., Eagle Point
    When it comes to water, the state of Oregon generally holds all the cards, Mike.
    Under Oregon law, almost all water is publicly owned, according to the state Water Resources Department.
    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 state.
    So, Mike, any water use on your property is subject to state oversight and control. An exception would be a spring that doesn't flow across your property.
    The use of state water by a landowner has to be for a "beneficial purpose without waste."
    We checked in with the Watermaster's Office in Jackson County to delve deeper into your question, Mike.
    When a property owner applies for a water right, the type of use is described. For instance, you might need water for crops, raising fish, dust suppression, frost protection or temperature control.
    But, if you start using water designated for crops for an industrial purpose, you would be running afoul of your water permit.
    However, you can apply for a "character of use" transfer, which would allow you to change the type of use for the water.
    The most common change is converting water designated for agricultural use to domestic use.
    Under the character of use transfer, you retain your priority right and source, though sometimes the rate of water that can be consumed diminishes.
    Also, just because water flows across your property doesn't mean you have the right to it under Oregon law.
    In 2012, a Jackson County Circuit Court Jury convicted Eagle Point resident Gary A. Harrington of the unauthorized use of water because he placed dams across his property without obtaining a permit.
    Send questions to "Since You Asked," Mail Tribune Newsroom, P.O. Box 1108, Medford, OR 97501; by fax to 541-776-4376; or by email to youasked@mailtribune.com. We're sorry, but the volume of questions received prevents us from answering all of them.
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