Harvesting Surface Water for Irrigation

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In our dry summer climate, water is a limiting factor for agricultural production, and low summer flow in streams is a limiting factor for fish life. Summer surface water diversion and ground water withdrawal can affect stream flow creating conditions harmful for fish. Meanwhile, loss of forest cover, degradation of soils and development of impervious surfaces increase overland flow, reduce groundwater recharge, increase winter flooding, erosion, and scour, and further excacerbate summer stream flow conditions. The systematic solution, following the hydrologic patterns found in historical ecosystems, is to capture and store water in the winter, restoring some of the lost hydrologic functions of historical landscapes. This can be accomplished in the modern landscape by the use of diversion swales and surface water storage in ponds, that can be used for irrigation, aquaculture, and wildlife habitat. Use of this water for irrigation, which increases evapotranspiration, may also be consistent with restoration of the hydrolgy of historical forested landscapes.


  • Diversion of surface water for irrigation requires a water right. The water right is measured where you pull water from the pond to put on crops.
  • You may divert and store water for infiltration/evaporation, and do not require a water right to do this.
  • Issuance of a water right can include limitations on the period of collection and diversion, and thus were winter collection to support ecological functions, issuence of a water right involving winter diversion might avoid conflict over maintenance of in-stream flows caused by summer diversion or withdrawal.
  • In counties that have not completed a watershed planning process, WDOE will currently not process a water right application, unless the applicant pays for the work through a cost reimbursement program.
    • That program is managed by Rhea Berns (as of August 2013).
    • Water rights applications are typically compared to a sub-basin scale assessment of watershed hydrology.
    • Costs may range from $5,000-$30,000 depending on the complexity of the application.
    • There are two phases to application (three if you include a preapplication meeting). Phase one requires analysis, and phase two requires engineering.
    • Time for completion of an application may take 1 to 2 years. There are 3 one-month review periods within the application sequence. A nine-month time period from application to permit would be extremely efficient.
    • Involving all stakeholders (including tribes) in an application process may avoid legal challenge to an application during one of the review periods.
    • At the end of an application process, a permit is issued, allowing development and use. That use is monitored over five years, after that time a certificate is issued, which is the perpetual water right.
  • Ponds that store more than 10 acre feet require a reservior permit, which also is issued under a cost reimbursement program.
  • Ponds that store more than 10 acre feet, or have dam walls higher than 10 feet requires a Dam Safety inspection, also by WDOW but not requiring a fee.
  • California Agricultural Water Stewardship Initiative http://agwaterstewards.org/ supported by the Agricultural Innovations Network http://aginnovations.org/
  • Centennial Clean Water Grant Program http://www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/wq/funding/FundingPrograms/Centennial/Cent.html
    • State capital dollars distributed by WDOE
  • Water rights may affect a variety of activities, based on volume and rate of withdrawal rather than actual ecological or hydrological effects. Peters 2009 provides a four page summary.

Related Pages

Other Pages Using Category:Water Management and Category:Agriculture