NORTH DAKOTA (KXNET) — Water rights, how are they acquired and which water right does our state adhere to?

After our continuing coverage of the Red River Valley Water Supply Project, our viewers suggested we take a look into a different avenue: water rights.

There are two laws involving water rights: riparian and prior appropriation.

North Dakota follows prior appropriation.

“In the eastern United States, we have riparian rights, which means that the owners of land next to a water body can extract water and use it, but they have to return it in much the same quantity and quality. In the western United States, we’ve developed a system of prior appropriation. In prior appropriation, the state will allocate rights of water based upon those who have made some beneficial use of that water,” said NDSU Professor Bob Hearne. 

This follows the same idea from the California Gold Rush. In early applications of this doctrine, gold miners who diverted water from streams and rivers for their mining operations could claim a right to the water, and they don’t have to replenish the water they took.

This same practice can be done in North Dakota.

So, when it comes to the Red River Water pipeline, as the city of Fargo grows, so does its need for water.

“Any interbasin transfer is kind of outside of the norm. So, the water that is proposed to be transferred from the Missouri River basin through the Garrison Diversion to the eastern portion of the state to the city of Fargo, that water in a sense is Missouri River water,” Professor Hearne said. 

He tells us the state concurred that the Missouri River had non-allocated use for the water, which gave the Red River Valley Water Supply project open use to it.

The right to use water under the prior appropriation doctrine does not limit the user to using the water in the watershed of its source.

So what does this mean?

This means you can take water from the Missouri River watershed near Washburn, and carry it somewhere else, like to the Red River Valley.

This is exactly how the Red River Valley Water Supply Project is getting its water.