Overview of Water Rights in Washington
A water right is basically a legal right to use a certain amount of public water for a beneficial purpose. Water rights issues have come into the forefront as the inter-relationship among water quantity and use, water quality, land use planning and development regulations, and water habitat for fish and wildlife has gained recognition.
The state Department of Ecology is responsible for managing the state's water resources and administers the permit systems for water rights for surface and ground water. A wealth of information about water rights administration and the department's water resources program is available on the Department of Ecology Water Rights page.
The law of water rights in Washington is complex. The law is based on "common law" (law based on custom and tradition and court decisions) as well as on state statutes enacted by the legislature. Washington has an extensive body of case law on water rights dating back to the early 1900s and detailed administrative regulations adopted by the Department of Ecology. Several excellent articles summarize water law basics in Washington.
An additional and uncertain factor necessary to understanding water rights is Indian tribal water rights issues. As a result of federal law and the treaty rights of several Pacific Northwest Indian tribes, the tribes are major stakeholders in water resource issues. Tribal treaty rights include fishing and hunting rights as well as rights to the protection of the water habitat necessary to realize those treaty rights.
Major water rights issues for local governments are municipal water rights and adequate water supply requirements for private development permits. The Growth Management Act requires that cities and counties address the quality and quantity of water in preparing planning goals and plans, designating critical areas, and issuing development permits.
Water rights issues have significant implications for current legislative initiatives for water resource planning and watershed management. Water rights issues are also important to state and local governments in responding to the listings of fish species as threatened or endangered species.
The following resources provide more general discussions of water rights: