Water Law

Southern Utah Water Rights Attorney

“Are you concerned about losing your water rights in Souther Utah?  If you own underground or surface water rights in the Virgin River drainage area (Washington County, Iron County and Kane County), you need to be especially diligent to protect your water rights. Recently, the State of Utah, through the Utah State Engineer reinstated legal proceedings regarding what’s called a general adjudication on the Virgin River. It involves what’s called a proposed determination. They are sending letters through the mail asking that owners of water rights participate in this process.  Ben Ruesch is an experienced water law attorney with Ruesch & Reeve PLLC and can assist you with this process.” Our attorneys have extensive knowledge of this much specified legal service. Working closely with local and state governments we will find a resolution to your water rights issues. We provide water rights consultations, representation in water rights disputes, assistance with adjudications, preparation of change applications and other permits, preparation of non-use applications, assistance with water rights purchase transactions, and assistance with water quality issues.

Some of the services we provide include:

  • Perform due diligence on water right purchases
  • Prepare water right inventories and evaluations
  • Prepare, file, and prosecute change applications, non-use applications, and other applications with the Utah Division of Water Rights
  • Draft, revise, and amend Articles of Incorporation, Bylaws, and Rules and Regulations for irrigation companies, canal companies, ditch companies, and private culinary water companies
  • File and prosecute rate increases with the Utah Division of Public Utilities and Utah Public Service Commission
  • Research water right title issues and update title with the Utah Division of Water Rights
  • Prepare and prosecute protests to applications filed with the Utah Division of Water Rights
  • Assist water companies in acquiring approvals, funding, and easements for water improvement projects

Utah Water Rights Information

The Division of Water Rights is the state agency that regulates the appropriation and distribution of water in the state of Utah. It is an office of public record for information pertaining to water rights, excepting that related to water right ownership. The office of public record for water right ownership is the county recorder’s office for the county(ies) in which the water is diverted. All official and publicly accessible water right records are available in the Salt Lake City office or from this site. Region Offices outside Salt Lake City will also have copies of most records for the areas they administer.

The Utah pioneers, in the late 1840’s, were the first Anglo-Saxons to practice irrigation on an extensive scale in the United States. Being a desert, Utah contained much more cultivable land than could be watered from the incoming mountain streams. The principle was established that those who first made beneficial use of water should be entitled to continued use in preference to those who came later. This fundamental principal was later sanctioned in law, and is known as the Doctrine of Prior Appropriation. This means those holding water rights with the earliest priority dates, and who have continued beneficial use of the water, have the right to water from a certain source before others with water rights having later priority dates.

In the early territorial days, rights to the use of public streams of water were acquired by physical diversion and application of water to beneficial use, or by legislative grant. A “county courts” water allocation system was enacted in 1852 and was in effect until 1880 when it was replaced by a statute providing for county water commissioners.

The Office of the State Engineer was created in 1897. The State Engineer is the chief water rights administrative officer. A complete “water code” was enacted in 1903 and was revised and reenacted in 1919. This law, with succeeding complete reenactments and amendments is presently in force mostly as Utah Code, Title 73. In 1967 the name of the Office of the State Engineer was changed to the Division of Water Rights with the State Engineer designated as the Director, but the public sometimes still refers to the Division as the State Engineer’s Office.

All waters in Utah are public property. A “water right” is a right to divert (remove from its natural source) and beneficially use water. The defining elements of a typical water right will include:

  • A defined nature and extent of beneficial use;
  • A priority date;
  • A defined quantity of water allowed for diversion by flow rate (cfs) and/or by volume (acre-feet);
  • A specified point of diversion and source of water;
  • A specified place of beneficial use.

Rights for water diversion and use established prior to 1903 for surface water or prior to1935 for ground water can be established by filing a “diligence claim” with the Division. Such claims are subject to public notice and judicial review and may be barred by court decree in some areas of the state. All other rights to the use of water in the State of Utah must be established through the appropriation process administered by the Division of Water Rights.

The steps to this process for an “Application to Appropriate Water” are as follows:

  • An Application to Appropriate Water is filed with the Division.
  • The application is advertised and protests may be received and a hearing may be held.
  • The State Engineer renders a decision on the application based upon principles established in statute and by prior court decisions.
  • If the application is approved, the applicant is allowed a set period of time within which to develop the proposed diversion and use water. When the diversion and use are fully developed, the applicant retains the services of a professional engineer or land surveyor who files “proof” documentation with the Division showing the details of the development.
  • Upon verification of acceptably complete proof documentation, the State Engineer issues a Certificate of Appropriation, thus “perfecting” the water right.