Water Rights

The legal right to make use of water from a stream, lake, canal, impoundment, or groundwater.

Related resource topics for county planning include the following:


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Resource Information

Water is a renewable but finite natural resource, and because annual supplies of water vary, its availability is subject to competition between stakeholders. The demand to supply water to Utah’s various interests is expected to always be a complex issue for stakeholders to coordinate. Water is a resource taken from a natural system resulting from a fluctuating cycle of precipitation and subsequent absorption into the earth and/or the drainage of water from high elevations to lower elevations. The network of flowing water, both above and below the earth’s surface, extends beyond obvious topographic or political boundaries. As a result, management and use of water supplies requires coordination between the various jurisdictions of local, state, and federal entities.

Appropriation, Beneficial Use, and Transfers
Typically Utah’s arable lands require significantly more water than that which is supplied by Utah’s arid climate. The disparity in the ratio between available land and available water necessitated the establishment of legal framework through which available water is allocated. The legal identification of who possesses the right to use available water, where it’s taken from, where it’s used, how much is used, in what priority, and for which specific purpose(s) is called an “appropriation.”[1]

The appropriation of water from Utah rivers, lakes, and wells is regulated by the Utah Division of Water Rights (UDWR) and is subject to both state and federal laws.

By comparison Summit, Wasatch and portions of Utah Counties possess some of the best water availability in the state due to their advantageous locations high in their watersheds, and network of reservoirs which ameliorate water supplies throughout the seasons. Utah, Summit, and Wasatch Counties (along with all Wasatch Front counties) often find water rights a contested issue as the snow packs of Upper Weber and Jordan River Basins share the burden of supporting much of the entire Wasatch Front’s water supply [2][3][4].

Portions of each MAG county lay within the Upper Colorado River Basin (UCRB). Additionally, the Central Utah Project (CUP) made it possible to relocate some of Utah’s allocation of UCRB water from the Uinta Basin to the Bonneville Basin (Wasatch Front) via a complex system of water development projects. The CUP was built by the Bureau of Reclamation in conjunction with the Central Utah Water Conservancy District (CUWCD) which manages the system [5]. The CUP’s ‘Bonneville Unit’ collects water from streams on the southern slope of the Uinta Mountains and delivers the water to the Wasatch Front using a series of canals, pipelines, tunnels, pumping stations, and reservoirs [6].

As a result, interstate laws governing the waters of the Colorado Basin are subject to the Colorado River Compact (1922) and the Upper Colorado River Basin Compact (1948) which define the relative volume of water for use in Utah and each surrounding state, and these compacts also define how much water must remain in the Colorado River as it leaves Utah’s borders [7][8]. All use of water from the Colorado River, and its tributaries, are subject to these compacts. Additionally, other legal settlements, rulings, and treaties play significant roles in determining how water is allocated to users. “The Law of the River,” is known as the primary canon of legal basis for managing the flows of the Colorado River and its tributaries.

The purpose for which the allotted water is legally intended is called the “beneficial use.” Common beneficial uses include:

  • Irrigation
  • Stock watering
  • Municipal and industrial use
  • Electric power generation
  • Mining

The ownership of a right to use water identified by appropriation is called a “water right.” Utah law states that water rights are classified as “real property,” which can be held by an entity or individual, and may be bought and sold. A water right is tied to a specific source, and also tied correlating quantified area of land in which the water is to be applied to beneficial use. An irrigation water right must be continually used for the purpose for which it was appropriated, which is defined as a beneficial use. With some limitations, a water right can be rented or sold to other users, subsequent to UDWR approval and provided that the transfer of water rights does not affect other relevant water users. With some limitations, a water right for a certain beneficial use may be held in lieu of a different beneficial use, subsequent to the UDWR approval, and an appropriate exchange can be accounted for by UDWR. With some limitations, the use of a water right from a specific diversion may be transferred to the use of water from another diversion [9], subsequent to the UDWR approval, and an appropriate exchange rate can be accounted for by UDWR. Water rights are subject to available supply, so ownership of a water right may not necessarily guarantee the user receives a specific predefined volume of water. Additionally, not all water rights posses an equal standing when annual water allocations are reduced due to water availability.

The laws in the State of Utah governing the statewide administration of water rights are based on the principles of a legal doctrine known as “prior appropriations.” The “prior appropriations doctrine” establishes the ranking of a water right’s priority based upon the chronologic establishment of the original beneficial use, making older “senior” water rights prioritized over newer “junior” water rights. In other words, all water rights are not created equal. Any water right can be subject to available supply. As available water supply may be limited in any give season, a junior water right holder may have to yield remaining water supply to the holder of a more senior water right.

The location from where water is removed from its natural course of flow is called a “diversion.” Diversions can be a drilled or dug well. They can also be gates, valves, dams, or pumps that take water from a natural stream channel or groundwater.

The source of the water may be a determining factor identifying which beneficial use may be applied. Drinking water often comes from wells, where little or no treatment is required, while irrigation water often comes from rivers because irrigation water does not typically require treatment. Water appropriated for irrigating farmland must be used only for irrigation until (and if) approval to change the use can be obtained from the UDWR. Similarly, irrigating farmland from a culinary well is not legal unless approval has been obtained from UDWR. Additionally, failure to actively maintain beneficial use may result in the forfeiture of the water right.

Whether it is used for household use or irrigating corn, water rights are typically quantified as a gross volume of flow, and represent the maximum amount of water a water rights holder is entitled to divert from a common supply. However, it is a common misconception that the water rights holder owns that water, or that all the water diverted is taken out of circulation. Because of the cyclical nature of how finite water supplies become available to users, ownership of a water right entitles the owner to only the single annual beneficial use for which the right was appropriated. Water right ownership entitles the holder to divert a given volume of flow (if both available supply and water right seniority allow) and apply that diverted water to the beneficial use. However, after the use of the water has been applied, the water must then be released downstream to the next user. Water rights are quantified at the diversion point because there is no reliable way to accurately measure water returned to the system after all the various beneficial uses.

“Depletion” is the term defining the actual net water volume a user takes from a given diversion point, removing it from the system and rendering it unavailable for reuse by downstream users. A water right is more accurately described as the right to an estimated amount of depletion. The estimated amount of depletion is approximated based on known rates of water that are lost to the system for a particular use, which is why water rights are tied to a specific beneficial use.

Regular data collection of the ground and surface water is carried out across the state to aid the UDWR in managing water resources in the state. Various types of data are typically collected such as: Point of Diversion data (WRPOD), Place of Use data, Stream Alteration data, and Adjudication Area data. Such data may be used by each county to help coordinate planning and management of complex water rights issues.

The UDWR maintains records of all diversions, as well as places of use, and municipal water suppliers. However, many water rights holders in Utah are entities that function for a collective set of water shareholders. In these cases shareholders own a portion of any water rights which are administered by the water right holder. This is usually the case within irrigation districts or ditch companies. The UDWR does not necessarily posses records of individual shareholders, because those records are held by the entity owning the water right on behalf of the shareholders. Changes to any water rights may be applied for by filing an application to the UDWR, which is a division of the Utah Department of Natural Resources. The UDWR and the Utah Division of Natural Resources are both headed by appointees of the governor, accountable to the governor, subject to state legislative action, and tasked with administering all state and federal water rights within Utah.

UDWR contact information
Utah Division of Water Rights
1594 West North Temple Suite 220
P.O. Box 146300
Salt Lake City, Utah 84114-6300
Phone Number 801-538-7240
Email: waterrights@utah.gov

Refer to the Utah Code, Title 73: Water and Irrigation for more detailed information about water rights in Utah.  Title 57 Chapter 13a provides for the establishment of prescriptive easements for water conveyance facilities in Utah.

Best Management Practices
Examples of county goals and policies that can help address water rights issues include:

  • Coordinate with water resource management entities, especially water districts and canal companies, to ensure water supplies and water delivery infrastructure will meet growth needs.
  • Implement watershed protections and vegetation management to maintain availability of water for beneficial uses and to protect water quality.
  • Consider and help implement in-stream water flows for the benefit of aquatic habitats and sensitive species while recognizing existing water rights.
  • Coordinate with public land management agencies to acquire and protect water rights for use on public land and maintain them with the State Water Engineer;
  • Enact stormwater management policies for each jurisdiction and maintain robust stormwater mitigation infrastructure focusing on ecological stormwater treatment methods.

Economic Considerations
Although water rights are the right to use appropriated water within the requirements of a given beneficial use, water rights are classified as “real property” in the State of Utah and are bought and sold much like real estate [10]. Many developers are seeking to obtain water rights allowing them to construct new development for which the land has inadequate water rights. Transferring water rights can involve substantial costs and may be a significant factor determining whether a particular transfer can be profitably implemented. Additionally, geographic limitations may render such a transfer impractical.
Although some uses of water resources (such as recreation) are not tied to a specific water right, the scarcity of such water resources can have significant economic impacts on areas where businesses are largely dependent on the presence of water flowing in the river channels. Availability of adequate water resources is vital when attracting manufacturing businesses. If the water resources are not available, a business will look elsewhere. As of May 2011, harvesting rainwater in the state is legal. No water rights are required to harvest and use rainwater [11].

Impact Considerations

Managing water rights is a complex task. Water reliability is usually a concern in western states, given the nature of the region and the prior appropriation system. Because water rights are allocated based on seniority of the right, competing demands may arise causing supply interruptions to more junior water right holders [12].

In highly populated areas, new water appropriations will most likely be closed. New developments usually have to secure already-existing rights by purchasing or transferring a water right in order to supply their needs [12].

Certain flow levels may be required for conservation and recreational water uses. In addition, lands managed by federal agencies usually have implied reserved rights to guarantee sufficient water to satisfy their purposes. Some examples of lands with implied water rights include national parks and forests, tribal lands, wilderness areas, and wild and scenic rivers [13].

The transfer of water rights is usually restricted to the designated service area for which a water right is held. Transferring a water right to be used either upstream or downstream within a watershed may create little or no ill effects to the overall watershed. Transferring a water right outside the watershed may also be possible, but doing so may adversely affect remaining water users within the service area, or other downstream water users. Additionally, diverting water for use outside the service area may have detrimental effects on groundwater levels and stream flows in the area from which the water is removed [2][3][4].

The Utah Water Use Program collects and compiles water use and water diversion data from public water suppliers throughout the state. This database is useful to consultants, engineers, attorneys, and others interested in quantification of water supply system characteristics and total water diverted and placed to use.

In addition to UDWR recognizes water rights held by the federal government. Various federal agencies may claim additional unresolved federally reserved water rights, which may have tremendous effect on natural resource management within relevant watersheds.

Data Download
  GIS Data Map Service Web Map Document  Tabular Data  Website
Data NameData ExplanationPublication DateSpatial AccuracyContact
Adjudication Boundaries
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Utah Water Rights boundaries as defined in the state Water Rights Book.2010UnknownUtah Division of Water Rights
Consumptive Use Stations
Point locations of water right consumptive use stationsUnknownUnknownUtah Division of Water Rights
Place of Use
Polygon delineation of irrigation acreage. Each polygon is tied to the Water Rights database work in progress02/12/2016UnknownLee Eschler or Sean Breazeal
Utah Division of Water Rights
Points of Diversion
Points of diversion from Water Rights Database metadataUpdated nightlyUnknownLee Eschler
Utah Division of Water Rights
Stream Alteration Permit Applications
, ,
Stream alteration permit locations with link to permit documents from popup metadataUnknown1:24,000Utah Division of Water Rights
Water Right Areas
Water right area boundariesUnknownUnknownUtah Division of Water Rights


  1. Utah Division of Water Rights. 2011. Water Rights Information. Website accessed: 08/30/16.
  2. Utah Association of Conservation Districts. 2012. Summit County Resource Assessment.
  3. Utah Association of Conservation Districts. 2012.Utah County Resource Assessment.
  4. Utah Association of Conservation Districts. 2012.Wasatch County Resource Assessment.
  5. Bureau of Reclamation. 2016. Central Utah Project. Website accessed: 08/30/16.
  6. Eastman, Adam R. ND. The Central Utah Project, Bonneville Unit Historic Reclamation Projects Book. Accessed: August 3, 2016.
  7. United States Bureau of Reclamation, Lower Colorado Region. Colorado River Compact, 1922
  8. United States Bureau of Reclamation, Upper Colorado Region. Upper Colorado River Basin Compact, 1948
  9. Utah State University Extension. 2008. Water Rights in Utah. Website accessed: 08/30/16.
  10. Utah Division of Water Rights. n.d. Frequently Asked Questions. Accessed: February 2, 2016.
  11. Colby, B. G. 1988. Economic Impacts of Water Law–State Law and Water Market Development in the Southwest. Natural Resources Journal 28: 721-749.
  12. Utah Department of Natural Resources. 2013. Study of Issues Related to State Jurisdiction over Water Rights. November.
  13. United States Bureau of Reclamation, Law of the River. Website accessed: 04/26/16.
  14. Utah Division of Natural Resources, Study of Issues Related to State Jurisdiction Over Water Rights. November 2013