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What are Utah’s Water Rights?

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Home and business owners can have a variety of reasons to rely on a well besides the usual main water line. Wells can provide easier, faster, and better access to clean underground water. It also reduces the reliance on primary water supply. For those who want to live off the grid, a well becomes necessary.

The general guidelines in making a well are simple. For example, they need to be completely separate or several meters away from sources of animal and human waste. There should be enough space to build and use well pumps.

But in several states such as Utah, those who want to well have one more crucial thing to consider: water right.

What Is a Water Right?

One of the biggest misconceptions both locals and transplants have is that they are free to use the water however they like. That might have been the principle before, but like many resources on the planet, quality water is becoming a scarce resource. It becomes important to ensure that everyone has equitable access and use to it.

A water right is a principle, doctrine, or law that manages how people with access or proximity to a body of water can use it for their benefit. This shouldn’t be confused with a water share, which may be a right that can be subdivided among stakeholders.

In general, there are two known water rights:

1. Riparian Rights

A riparian water right is a principle that states that a landowner who lives adjacent to a non-navigable flowing body of water, such as streams or rivers, as well as surface water, has the use and access to such water.

This also falls under the concept of “first in time, first in right belief.” The quote implies that the person who’s first in the area may have a more superior right compared to the others. Unlike the other type of water right, the person also doesn’t lose such right.

However, anyone with a riparian right needs to remember two things. First, they have only the right to the water—they do not own it.

In other words, they cannot just divert any part of the water source to their advantage. They also cannot use it in ways that may harm those who live upstream or downstream of the body of water.

Second, this right is tied to the land, not the owner. When someone buys the property, the water is part and parcel or included in the purchase. This also means that the seller needs to relinquish the water right to the buyer.

2. Littoral Rights

The littoral water right is the opposite of the riparian right. First, the property is near a body of water that is navigable, such as the sea or the ocean, or pooled like a lake. Second, they differ in the way they can use and access the water.

When a person has a littoral right, they have unrestricted use of the water until the median high-water mark. The rest then belongs to the government.

What Is the Water Right in Utah?

The water right in Utah may vary between the county, municipality, or city. But overall, unlike other states, the state sees water as a property of the public regardless of whether the source is above or underground. This claim affects many aspects of how one can use the resource:

• Areas where people can build or run water pumps and wells
• The size of the water well or pump
• Cost of diverting water supply
• Whether or not they can undertake any water-related project

Anyone who likes to use the water in Utah needs to get water rights from the state engineer. The same office will also issue the permit for those who need to drill a well that’s over 30 feet.

Utah’s water right also follows the “use it or lose it” principle. After the state can provide the individual with a water right, they have a certain time when they can use it.

Otherwise, the right goes back to the state and may be passed on to another “owner.” For this reason, it’s possible that a person owns the land but doesn’t have any rightful access or use of the water adjacent to the property.

One can trace these changes to water rights in Utah’s history. Because the state was formerly a desert, it needed its only primary sources of water to be diverted to the fields for irrigation or agriculture. The idea of “first in time, first in right” worked.

In the end, water rights are about equal access to a rapidly diminishing resource in Utah. Complying with the rules sees to it that everyone can enjoy the state’s water today and still have some for the future generation.

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