If you're considering purchasing a property with acreage in Central Oregon, whether it be a hobby farm or a full-scale hay operation, you need to understand the legal and practical implications of owning land on acreage with agricultural intent. Water is the key to life in the desert and understanding water rights is a crucial component.
What are water rights?
Water rights pertain to the legal rights of property owners to access and use bodies of water adjacent to the lands they hold. Different types of water rights exist based on various forms of water that border or exist on a property. Here in Central Oregon most buyers are concerned with irrigation water rights to grow whatever crop serves their needs. In Central Oregon there are seven different irrigation districts that provide water from the Deschutes River to property owners. Make sure to contact the irrigation district serving water to the property you are interested in buying during your due diligence period BEFORE you buy!
What are my responsibilities as a water right user?
First and foremost, your responsibility is to use the water you've been given according to beneficial use practices. Beneficial use requires that property owners use the water being delivered to their property at a minimum once every five years, or it is subject to forfeiture. You could also be responsible for maintaining ditches that deliver water to your property or a holding pond to ensure proper flow and dispersal of water. Property owners are also at the mercy of the irrigation district administering water to your property on their schedule.
Irrigation District Priority
Each irrigation district obtained their water rights at different times. The oldest district formed is in the first-priority position. Why is this important? Each irrigation district offers a flow rate schedule, with peak season coming during the summer. During drought periods — depending on your irrigation district's priority — water flow rates may be reduced or shut off entirely. This could dramatically impact your operation. Make sure to ask the irrigation district about past water delivery flow rates and schedules.
Easements and encumbrances
Each irrigation district most likely has a federal easement for access to each property it's serving. It could be a road or a ditch. Either way the irrigation district and their ditch riders need to have access on your property to ensure water is flowing or for maintenance and repairs. If you plan to expand or build, understanding these easements is very important. As well, irrigation districts are piping open water canals to conserve water. That nice lazy river flowing through or along the property may someday be piped and become a road!
Not ready to farm?
Consider leasing your water rights to another individual until you're ready. Check with your irrigation district about the process. The Deschutes River Conservancy compensates water users to leave water instream and it still counts as Beneficial Use. Visit deschutesriver.org for more information.
Connect with a professional
Bottom line? Make sure you're working with an experienced realtor who is familiar with water rights.