Irrigation Tech & Water Sustainability

Devon Wright

Devon Wright

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How to Protect and Maintain Your Farms Water Rights

Protect and Maintain Farms Water Rights

If you are a farmer and you feel under assault, you are not alone. Reports show that even as prices for staple food items continue to climb at the grocery store, farmers are NOT the ones who are reaping the rewards. Instead, they are often having a finger pointed at them even as they struggle just to survive. To add to the misery, developments in climate change have made the work of being a farmer even harder, particularly when it comes to water availability and your farms water rights.

The Scarcity of Water

Most of us are taught in school that less than two percent of the total water on Earth is freshwater that may be used for quenching our thirst, growing our crops, and doing everything else that we need to do with water. This is true, but human beings have made due with the limited resources that we have for thousands of years. However, grim data suggests that this may become a lot harder to do moving forward. 

In just a few years, water scarcity could be humanity’s biggest threat: 

By 2025, an estimated 1.8 billion people will live in areas plagued by water scarcity, with two-thirds of the world’s population living in water-stressed regions.

With that thought in mind, farmers must now double down in their efforts to protect their farms water rights. The first way to do so is to gain a firmer understanding of what rights they truly have in this battle.

How Do Water Rights Work? 

The right to use water that exists on the surface or even underneath the ground is all dictated by the specific laws and regulations governing water rights in your area. 

Imagine that you are a farmer who owns a plot of land that happens to run adjacent to a lake or other small body of water. You may naturally assume that you are permitted to use any and all of the water that is available in that lake for whatever purposes you deem fit, but that is not actually the case. In all likelihood, you do not actually own the body of water, you merely own the land that runs up against it. Thus, the water rights laws in your particular jurisdiction are what will determine what you may do with that water and what you may not.

The Two Main Types of Water Rights in the US 

There are two main water rights systems in the United States. They are: Riparian water rights and Prior Appropriation water rights.

For the most part, Riparian water rights are what the Eastern half of the United States uses. Meanwhile, Prior Appropriation water rights are more commonly used by the Western half. We will explore the meaning of each. Understanding your farms water rights is the first step towards protecting them.

Riparian Water Rights (Land Based)

Under this system, the individual who owns land adjacent to a water source is generally given free rein to use the water that is adjacent to their land for “reasonable use”. In this case, if you owned a piece of land that ran adjacent to a river, you would largely be allowed to use that river for whatever purposes you may decide. You could build a dock on it, you could transport some of the water for your personal property use, or you could allow your livestock to drink from that water (assuming it was safe for them to do so). 

The only limitation that you would run into is if your use somehow interfered with the use of another riparian of the water. That is to say if your neighbor also owned land that was adjacent to the same water source, you would still need to allow them to use the water for reasonable use purposes as well. 

Another form of water rights that is often used interchangeably with Riparian Water Rights are Littoral water rights, although there is not a huge distinction here. The Littoral water rights system refers to a sitting body of water instead of a flowing body of water. Thus, littoral water rights apply to lakes and ponds instead of streams and rivers. Littoral water rights still recognize the property rights of those with land that runs adjacent to the body of water to have first dibs on the use of that water, but they also make it clear that this applies to sitting bodies of water and not just water that flows through one’s land.

Prior Appropriation Water Rights (Use Based)

Prior Appropriation or appropriative water rights, are granted based on who first made claim to a certain body of water, as opposed to who owns the land adjacent to a body of water. This can be simplified to “first in time, first in sight,” and this party will earn the status of being “senior”. The next party to withdraw water from the same source for a beneficial use becomes the second most senior, and so on. This seniority system works by giving the most senior party “first dibs” on using the water they need, and only after their water right has been fulfilled, will the next most senior party get access. This will typically only be enforced when water is scarce. 

In some states that use the appropriation water rights framework, permit holders can sell their water rights separate from the land they own. 

Protecting and Maintaining Your Farms Water Rights

Registering your farms water rights with the state or local agency is the first step. This will not only permit you to use the water you’re entitled to, but also provide you with the reporting requirements and administration processes you’ll need to follow in order to maintain your farms water rights. 


Reporting – Reporting requirements can call for weekly, monthly, or yearly monitoring of flow rates, so tracking and documenting your water usage is critical. 

Adjudication – Adjudication involves inventorying, investigating and defining water rights through a district or water court. This process will produce court-ordered deadlines for you to file your water use that must be met in order to preserve your water rights. 

Doctrine of Abandonment – In the western United States, water rights are subject to the Doctrine of Abandonment, which means you must consistently demonstrate that the water you’re drawing goes to beneficial use. If it’s determined that you have non-use and intent to abandon your water rights, you could lose them. 

Local Considerations for Your Farms Water Rights

Water laws by state vary and in some cases by region. In Texas for example, there are groundwater conservation districts (GCDs) within regions that are responsible for creating groundwater management goals and the accompanying reporting requirements. 

In California, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which was passed in 2014, requires certain high value basins to limit water usage to prevent them from running dry and allowing them to recharge. To help manage this, local agencies called Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) work within their region to develop plans and define the allocation of rights to withdraw water and the accompanying reporting requirements. 

Therefore, it’s important to know what your state and regions reporting requirements are, to avoid losing your precious water rights. Your best bet is to contact your state’s water or environmental regulatory authorities or department of natural resources regarding your farms water rights.

How Farmers Can Conserve and Track Water Usage

Farmers need creative solutions to protect their farms water rights while also protecting the planet. A smart irrigation system can help make that happen. 

Instead of manual irrigation systems that continue to pump water onto crops until someone shuts off the line, a smart irrigation system has smart valves that automatically close once the crops have received the predetermined amount of water. In fact, those smart valves are also great for: 

  • Creating an automated watering systemThey will turn on or off depending on what is scheduled in the system. Farmers can think of this as a “set it and forget it” system that allows them to select how much water is truly needed. 
  • Making detailed reports about water usage for farmers to review – Data is king, and having real-time information that can be acted upon is the gold standard for farmers. When they see how they are managing their water resources and where they could potentially do better, they are sure to take decisive actions that improve their resource management.
  • Reducing the difference between planned and actual water usage – Farmers may notice that the total water consumption of their operation drops as they use a smart irrigation system. That is by design. By reducing the total consumption of water on the farm, the system can help farmers save money, protect the environment, and not take so much heat from outsiders over water rights. 

Farmers using a smart irrigation system can save 15-20% of their precious water resource, but they can also automate much of the burdensome reporting required for them to prove-up their farms water rights. In an increasingly regulated world, this is an important thing to get right so as not to face penalties or even lose water rights for late or inaccurate reporting.

There is no question that modern technology will be a game-changer for farmers to not only use water more efficiently, but also better manage their tracking and usage for their farms water rights reporting. With all of the challenges that farmers are facing with water availability, investing in the right tools and technology to manage this precious resource efficiently will be critical for for conserving water and protecting your farms water rights. To learn more about how to automate your irrigation scheduling and reporting, contact us here or email [email protected]

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