Water rights

Waters of the state belong to the public and can't be owned by any individual or group. Instead, a person or group may be granted a right to use a volume of water, for a defined purpose, in a specific place.

Water: A public resource

We are responsible for managing the water resources of the state, including issuing the right to use water as well as protecting the instream resources for the benefit of the public. We manage a portfolio of over 230,000 active water right certificates, permits, applications, and claims to help meet the state's many water supply needs. Many of these permits have been in existence since the late 1800s. Before we can issue a water right permit, the proposed use must meet a four-part test:

  1. Water must be available (both physically and legally)
  2. Water must be used beneficially
  3. Water use must be in the public's interest
  4. Water use must not impair another existing use

Washington follows the doctrine of prior appropriation, which means that the first users have rights senior to those issued later. We call this "first in time, first in right." If a water shortage occurs, senior rights are satisfied first and the junior right holders can be curtailed.

When we issue a water right permit, it is a permit to develop a water right. It is not a water right until the water has been put to full use and we issue a certificate of water right. A water right will remain in good standing as long as you continue to exercise the right.

Commonly used terms

  • Permit — an authorization to use a specific amount of water with a defined place, season, and purpose.
  • Certificate — documentation of a "perfected" water right put to full beneficial use, recorded in the appropriate county, attached to a property deed.
  • Adjudicated certificate — a certificate that has been validated by a local superior court in a water rights adjudication.
  • Claim — a claim to a water right that predates the water permitting system (prior to 1917 for surface water and prior to 1945 for groundwater); these rights can only be confirmed in an adjudication. Read more about water right claims.
  • Trust water right — a water right placed into the Trust Water Rights Program that is protected from relinquishment due to non-use.

Do you need a water right?

  • You will need a water right if you plan to use any amount of surface water (from a river, stream, spring, or lake) for any purpose.
  • You will need a water right if you plan to use groundwater (from a well) for any use, with these exceptions:
    • single or group domestic uses of less than 5,000 gallons per day
    • industrial uses of less than 5,000 gallons per day
    • irrigation of lawn or non-commercial garden, a half-acre or less in size
    • stock water

If you receive your water from a utility, you don't need a water right as long as your provider has the necessary rights.

How to find out if property has a water right

Water availability in Washington

Washington is known as a water-rich state, particularly on the west side of the Cascade Mountains. But water for new uses is becoming more difficult to come by due to the growing population and court decisions.

In addition to issuing water rights, we are also responsible for protecting streamflows for fish, wildlife, recreation, aesthetics, water quality, and navigation. We accomplish this by setting instream flows, which are essentially water rights for rivers.

Apply for a water right or change a right

Before applying for a water right or seeking to change an existing water right, we recommend a pre-application consultation with our regional staff. We can advise you on water supply options.