Water rights in Washington state are pretty much handled the way things are in an old Western – finders, keepers. Here are six things you need to know:
First come, first served: In Washington, water rights are based on seniority. Senior water rights were claimed before 1905. Senior water rights holders are ensured all of their allocation every year. Tribes have “time immemorial” rights, which is pretty much for all of time.
It’s all about the supply (or demand?): Because senior water rights holders receive their entire allocation every year, you’re out of luck if there’s not enough water to go around. If there’s not enough water, the farther down on the list you are, the less of a chance you’ll receive water.
So what do you actually own?: Hint, it’s not actually the water. You just own the right to use the water. It’s actually just a stack of papers.
Fish need the water, too: Water rights can help protect stream flows for fish. When water is left “instream,” fish are happy. Some of the water management is used to fill creek beds with water once they have become dry.
Like the Wild West: Some of the oldest water right claims date back to the 1880s. Lisa Pelly, Trout Unlimited’s Washington Water Project director, says some of the oldest water rights she’s seen belong to pioneers settling in Walla Walla, Washington.
Water banking: This is one solution to the water shortage problem. This is when water becomes a commodity, kind of like real estate that’s managed by the state Department of Ecology. In some eastern and central Washington counties, water is more valuable than land. Developers can buy senior water rights to create a water bank. Kittitas County in central Washington is serving as a sort of trial run for water banking in the state.
(Mouse over Kittitas county and the Upper Yakima Basin for more information. Click to learn more about the Upper Yakima Basin.)
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