Water Rights: What They Mean to Customers

Feb 02, 2021

Did you know that Nevada is the driest states in the nation, with an average of only 9 inches of precipitation a year? This makes water a very valuable resource to all of us who live in Nevada! Did you know that the water utilized in the Spring Creek area is part of the Humboldt River Basin system? Great Basin Water Co. holds water rights and permits which are part of the Humboldt River Basin that supplies the water allocations to our Spring Creek customers. The Nevada Division of Water Resources (NDWR) is statutorily responsible for the management of water in Nevada.

Water Rights are best described as the entitlement or acquisition to use water for a beneficial use. Any use of water in the state of Nevada must have a water right permit. With the permit you are designated an appropriated amount of water.

Nevada has had water statutes since 1866 although they have changed and adapted over time. According to NDWR’s website, “Today, the law serves the people of Nevada by managing the state's valuable water resources in a fair and equitable manner. Nevada water law has the flexibility to accommodate new and growing uses of water in Nevada while protecting those who have used the water in the past.”

Water rights that are considered pre statutory are the oldest of water rights. For percolating ground water, it would be any time before 1939, for artesian water it is any time before 1905, and for ground water wells it is any time before 1913. After those dates people who want a permit to an allocation of water has to go through the state engineers’ offices to determine if the water is available and the proposed amount is sustainable in the future. The permit allows the use of water, but you don’t own it.

“Before statutes it was a free for all, first come first serve. They created their own entitlement to the water. After the statutory it has to go through an approval/permit process to be able to use the water,” said Micheline Fairbank, Deputy Administrator with the DNWR

According to NDWR’s website, “Nevada water law is based on two fundamental concepts: prior appropriation and beneficial use. Prior appropriation (also known as "first in time, first in right") allows for the orderly use of the state's water resources by granting priority to senior water rights. This concept ensures the senior uses are protected, even as new uses for water are allocated.”

Every water right has a priority date, when purchasing a water right permit you are not only buying the entitlement to use the water, but you are also purchasing the priority date. The buying and selling of water rights is done on an open market, and prices are agreed upon usually with the help of lawyers, consultants, and real estate professionals.

“When buying the permit, the legal definition is that usufructuary you are buying the entitlement to the use of that water. A water right permit has an amount tied to it for example 300-acre feet and you are also purchasing the priority date. That can make them more valuable than say more junior rights,” said Fairbank.  

When a new development is in its earliest stages, they are required to gain permits from the state engineers office, who will determine if the water rights they would like approval to use can sustain a new community and how many lots it can accommodate now and in the future.

“In Nevada it has been determined that an average allotment for a parcel is 1.12-acre feet of water. This amount should be sufficient to serve the property for regular municipal use. Most parcels don’t actually use that much water, allowing for there to be enough water to support the development now and into the future,” Fairbanks said.

Developments that have their water managed by a utility must go through the NDWR in order to determine how many lots it can accommodate. “The reality is that water rights are given and managed to sustain a community over time, by both the state and utility. Making conservation and stretching the use of that water a good management practice,” said Fairbanks.

She added, “Small steps today are an investment into the future.”