Irrigation systems

Irrigation systems on a farm near Mount Hood.

As much of Oregon faces another year of drought, water experts say farmers and ranchers should be aware of all the tools available to them under the state’s water laws.

At a seminar March 29, Elizabeth Howard, Oregon water law attorney, and Lindsay Thane, natural resources attorney, both of Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt, spoke about nine tools for farmers through the state Water Resources Department, or OWRD.

“There are tools available to water users, especially in drought years,” said Thane.

• Drought transfers: If Oregon’s governor issues a drought declaration for a county, water users in that county can then access emergency water use tools, one of which is a “drought transfer.”

According to Thane, a farmer can apply for an expedited, short-term drought transfer of their water right to change its type of use, place of use or location of the point of diversion.

• Temporary emergency water use permits: This tool is also only available to drought-declared counties.

According to Thane, if an existing surface water right doesn’t have enough water during drought — for example, a stream dries up — then the farmer can apply for an emergency permit to temporarily tap into groundwater.

These expedited applications should take 10 days to process.

• Temporary transfers: A temporary transfer allows farmers to move water to areas of critical need.

Applicants need not come from a drought-declared county.

A farmer can change the place of use, point of diversion or type of use of a certified water right and can move water on their own property or temporarily transfer to another farmer.

Unlike the first two tools, a temporary transfer takes longer to apply for and process.

“This isn’t a particularly speedy process most of the time,” said Thane.

Howard said this tool “is really good to think about for long-term planning.”

• Agriculture water use transfers: Howard said an agriculture water use transfer can be useful during hot and dry years.

The tool enables a farmer with an existing irrigation water right to use that right for purposes other than irrigation — “incidental agricultural uses” including dust control, keeping farm animals cool or giving drinking water to livestock within limitations.

• Limited licenses: A limited license is a short-term tool for a farmer who does not have water right.

According to Howard, a farmer can apply for a limited water license to establish a crop for which further irrigation won’t be required, such as a vineyard or hazelnut orchard, or to mitigate the impacts of drought when water is needed “to avoid irreparable damage to the user’s crop.”

• Exempt water uses: Howard said it’s also useful for farmers to be aware of exempt water uses in Oregon — opportunities to use water within limitations without applying for a permit.

Farms may qualify for the surface water stock water exemption, commercial and industrial uses exemption and domestic water rights exemption.

• Conserved water rights: A conserved water right allows a farmer to shrink a water right temporarily and move the balance to other places, such as to in-stream flows that benefit fish.

• New water right: A farmer can also apply for a new water right, but these are difficult to get.

“It’s pretty much impossible to get a surface water right in Oregon right now because basically all the water has been allocated,” said Howard.

Thane said getting a new groundwater right is more plausible, but OWRD has labeled some parts of Oregon as “groundwater restricted areas” where new wells can’t be drilled.

• Stored water right: The final tool is called a stored water right, enabling a farmer to create a pond or reservoir.

For this tool, said Howard, a farmer needs two rights — the right to store water and the right to remove water from a reservoir or pond for a specific purpose. The right to store water is separate from the right to use the stored water.

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