Water Rights

The Water Code

Under Oregon law, all water is publicly owned. With some exceptions, cities, farmers, factory owners, and other water users must obtain a permit or water right from the Water Resources Department to use water from any source whether it is underground, or from lakes or streams. Generally speaking, landowners with water flowing past, through, or under their property do not automatically have the right to use that water without a permit from the Department.

Prior Appropriation

Oregon's water laws are based on the principle of prior appropriation. This means the first person to obtain a water right on a stream is the last to be shut off in times of low streamflows. In water-short times, the water right holder with the oldest date of priority can demand the water specified in their water right regardless of the needs of junior users.

If there is a surplus beyond the needs of the senior right holder, the water right holder with the next oldest priority date can take as much as necessary to satisfy needs under their right and so on down the line until there is no surplus or until all rights are satisfied. The date of application for a permit to use water usually becomes the priority date of the right.


Generally, Oregon law does not provide a preference for one kind of use over another. If there is a conflict between users, the date of priority determines who may use the available water. If the rights in conflict have the same date of priority, then the law indicates domestic use and livestock watering have preference over other uses.

However, if a drought is declared by the Governor, the Department can give preference to stock watering and household consumptive purposes, regardless of the priority dates.

Water Rights Handbook

View the Water Rights in Oregon Handbook (PDF) for a complete introduction to Oregon's water code and appropriation laws.