Groundwater permit exemption

The groundwater permit exemption allows for four small uses of groundwater without a water right permit:

  • Domestic uses of up to 5,000 gallons per day
  • Industrial uses of up to 5,000 gallons per day
  • Irrigation of a lawn or garden, a half-acre or less in size
  • Stockwater

About the permit exemption

In 1945, the Legislature established the Groundwater Code, Chapter 90.44 RCW. In the code, at RCW 90.44.050, certain small withdrawals of groundwater were identified as exempt from the state’s water right permitting process. This law is commonly referred to as the “groundwater permit exemption."

Wells withdrawing groundwater under the permit exemption often provides water where a community supply is not available, serving single or small developments of homes, irrigation of small lawns and gardens, industry that needs minimal water, and stockwatering.

Although permit exempt water use does not require a water right permit, hence the name, a water right is legally established by the beneficial use.

Users of this groundwater permit exemption have the option of applying for a water right permit. For a water right permit to be granted, the application must pass the four-part test, the same as any other water right application.

Restrictions to the permit exemption

Water use of any sort is subject to the prior appropriation doctrine, also referred to as "first in time, first in right," except as specified under the Streamflow Restoration Act. This means that a senior water right cannot be impaired by a junior water right. Seniority is established by priority date — the original date a water right application was filed, or the date that water was first put to beneficial use in the case of claims and the groundwater permit exemption.

The following restrictions apply to the groundwater permit exemption:

  • One permit exempt use of each type is allowed for any one project, regardless of the project’s size.
  • Even if water is withdrawn from multiple well, all the water collectively withdrawn for a given project applies toward the limits of the groundwater permit exemption.

For example, a project that includes multiple homes, such as a small subdivision, can legally withdraw water under the groundwater permit exemption as long as the homes collectively will use no more than 5,000 gallons per day for their domestic water needs and will collectively irrigate no more than ½-acre of lawn or garden. Otherwise, a water right permit is required. Local governments, and other laws and rules, may impose additional requirements and limits.

Groundwater permit exempt water use still subject to water law

Although groundwater permit-exempt uses do not require a water right permit, they are always subject to state water law. In some instances, we have had to regulate permit exempt water users when they interfere with older, “senior” water rights, including instream flow rules.

The Streamflow Restoration law adopted by the Legislature in 2018 also affects new domestic permit exempt water use in some parts of the state.

Additional water use

If you want to use water in excess of the amounts listed, for any other purposes, or from a surface water source, you must apply for and receive a water right permit from us. Unauthorized water use may result in fines up to $5,000 per day.