In April 2009, I attended a meeting in Oklahoma City at which water issues were the central theme. There were several farmers and ranchers in attendance who did not realize that they should have a water permit for their wells or the streams/rivers from which irrigation was being used. So what is the law in Oklahoma and Texas related to water rights, and do you need a permit for your operation? These issues were covered at the meeting, but may not be widely disseminated to agriculture producers so the answers may be beneficial to some of you.
Who owns the water? In both Oklahoma and Texas, surface water (streams, creeks and rivers) is the property of the state. The use of this water requires a water permit. With a permit, water can be used for irrigation on a use-it or lose-it rule. In Oklahoma, you have seven years to set your baseline usage, and, in Texas, you have 10 years. The baseline is the highest level of water usage in one year during a preset period. If you are using less water than you were permitted, then the remainder of the water can be reallocated to another permit holder of the state's choice.
Groundwater, on the other hand, is owned by the property owner. In Oklahoma, property owners are allowed domestic use of the water without a water permit. Domestic use is defined as water used for household purposes, watering for domestic animals and gardens/orchards of no more than three acres in size. You are allowed to use up to two acre-feet (651,702 gallons) per year. If you are irrigating anything larger than three acres or using more than two acre-feet of water, then you are required to file for a water permit. With the permit, you can be permitted to pump up to two acre-feet of water per acre of land that you own or lease, unless you are in a sensitive aquifer (Arbuckle-Simpson) area. In Texas, groundwater is also owned by the landowner. Unless you own land in an area in which water is controlled by a conservation district, there are currently no restraints on the amount of water that can be pumped, as long as it is from beneath your land and not adjacent land. If, however, you are located in one of the conservation districts, such as the Upper Trinity Groundwater Conservation District (Montague, Parker, Wise and Hood Counties), then you are required to have a permit to pump more than two acre-feet of water per year.
If you are irrigating without a water permit or are thinking about drilling a well or using a stream/river to irrigate, it would be in your best interest to inquire about the need for a water permit. This will ensure that the amount of water that you use will be on record if the state ever begins a strict regulation policy. According to the rules of both states, the permits are on a first-come, first-served basis.
For more information or water permit applications, go to the following Web sites: