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Water Rights in Washington:
Historic Roots/Current Issues
Washington Water Law 2008 Conference
Law Seminars International CLE – April 10-11, 2008
Jeff B. Kray
Marten Law Group PLLC
Environmental law is what we do. TM
1191 Second Avenue
Suite 2200
Seattle, WA 98101
 This presentation will:
 Introduce basic tenets of Washington water law
 Tie those tenets to their historic roots
 Explore current water use issues that other speakers
will expand upon later in the conference:
 Tribal and federal water rights
 Water for municipal growth
 Intersections between water resource and water
quality laws
Context – Past v. Present
 The Past
Water use in Washington Territory began to develop in the
late 1800s in an agricultural and industrial context.
 Water, in relation to population, was fairly abundant,
particularly in Western Washington.
Disputes, if any, over water were primarily local.
 The Present
Washington water use regulation has developed to address
modern environmental and domestic interests in water, as
well as historic agricultural and industrial uses.
Population is growing and water demand is increasing, even
in Western Washington.
 Modern disputes over water are complex and far-reaching.
Context - Water “Words”
 Words from the Past - Washington’s 1889 Constitution
 Irrigation
 Mining
 Manufacturing
 Public Use
 Words for the Present - LSI’s 2008 Water Conference Brochure
 Instream flows
 Climate change and endangered species
 Mitigation
 Interstate allocation
 Tribal water rights
 Reclaimed water
 Municipal Water Law
Basic Concepts - Usufructuary
Character of Water Rights
 Water law is a subset of property law.
 Due to hydrologic cycle, water can be used
but not permanently possessed.
 Hence, rights to water are use rights,
 Protected by the 5th Amendment.
Basic Concepts - Water Use:
Consumptive v. Non-consumptive
 Consumptive uses
 Drinking
 Cleaning
 Irrigation
 Industrial (e.g., energy production)
 Non-consumptive uses
 Power production using water flow
 Navigation
 Recreation (e.g., fishing and swimming)
 Scenic enjoyment
 Wildlife habitat
Water “Roots” in Washington Territory
Washington Territory created 1853
Territorial Legislature of Washington’s 1856 Act
No legislation on water rights
Common law recognized in all civil cases
Washington territorial laws begin to recognize
elements of prior appropriation
Yakima County 1873 – Declares right to appropriate
water in Yakima County streams without regard to
riparian statutes. 18 Wash. Terr. Laws, pp. 520-522.
Kittitas County 1885 – Yakima County legislation
extended to Kittitas County.
Water as a “Public Use”
Washington Constitution approved 1889
 Agriculture and Industry recognized as “public use” of
 “The use of the waters of this state for irrigation,
mining, and manufacturing purposes shall be deemed
a public use.” Wa. Const. Art. XXI, § 1.
 Constitutionally recognized list of “public uses” is not
exclusive and does not preclude legislature from
declaring other purposes public uses. State ex rel.
Anderson v. Superior Court, 119 Wash. 406 (1922).
Washington is a Dual System
 Washington recognizes both:
Riparian water rights, and
Prior Appropriation water rights.
 These rights are primarily governed by state law.
 What are Washington’s Key Water Codes?
1917 Water Code – Centralized state water administration
and prior appropriation for all new water rights.
1945 Ground Water Code – Extended permit system to
ground water.
1967 Minimum Water Flows and Levels Act – Provided
systematic approach to instream flow protection.
1967 Water Claims Registration Act – Established statutory
Riparian Rights
 Rights to water in a watercourse upon or
along one’s land.
 A watercourse is, e.g., a stream or a lake.
 Nature of Riparian Rights Doctrine:
 A rule of capture
 Need to avoid tragedy of the commons
 Solution: Limit character and extent of use
Limits On Riparian Water Use
 Limits where water may be used:
 Confers a right to use water only on the riparian land itself.
 No right of use on nonriparian land even if same owner.
 Limits who may use the water:
 Confers a nontransferable right to the riparian landowner.
 Riparian rights “run with the land” and may not be sold
 They are an incident to the land title.
 Limits how the water may be used:
 May not injure rights of other users.
 Use must be reasonable.
Prior Appropriation Rights
Water rights based on actual beneficial use, not land
Senior users are entitled to full satisfaction to the extent of
their prior use before junior users may take any water.
Rights may be transferred independent of land.
 Water available
 For beneficial use
 No impairment
 No detriment to public interest
Development of Prior
Appropriation System
Originally, self-help
Posting of notice at site of diversion
Filing of claims in public records
Today, obtaining a certificate from Washington Department
of Ecology. Key steps:
Public Notice, Record of Examination (ROE), Appeals
Beneficial Use
Federal Reserve Rights
 Rights to water that has entered the federal public
domain …
 … reserved for the benefit of
Indian reservations,
Forest preserves,
National parks, and
National monuments.
 Source of Federal Reserve Rights
 Arise by implication from anticipated needs of the
beneficiaries just listed …
 … or from the express language of treaties, acts of
Congress, or executive orders.
Scope and Priority of Federal
Reserve Rights
 Scope of rights is very uncertain,
particularly allowable uses and quantities.
 These are rights “reserved” to potentially
huge amounts of water that have priority
over subsequently created private rights to
the same source.
Current Issues – Tribal Water Rights
 Winters 100th Anniversary
 Three examples of modern tribal role:
Litigation (instream flow mitigation) -
Squaxin Island v. Miller Land
Negotiation - Lake Roosevelt Agreement
Litigation/Negotiation/Regulation Lummi Settlement
Current Issues – Municipal Growth
 2003 Municipal Water Law
 Current Litigation:
 Lummi v. Ecology
 Cornelius v. Ecology
 Water Use Efficiency and Department of
 GMA (Growth Management Act)
 LID (Low Impact Development)
Current Issues – Water Quality/Water
Resource Intersection
 Population Increases/Growth/Climate
Change: “new water” and new challenges
 Examples:
Lake Roosevelt Agreements and
Reclaimed water
ASR (Aquifer Storage & Recovery)
Water rights in Washington are tied to policies set
in the historic roots of Washington water law.
Water law is continuously evolving from those
historic roots to address modern water needs and
Water law’s evolution slows when it meets the
boundary of constitutionally protected property
rights in water use.
Question: where does water law’s evolution stop?
Thank you.
For additional information on
today’s topic, please contact:
Jeff Kray
(206) 292-2608
[email protected]

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