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Kansas Water Rights 101

Groundwater and surface water are essential resources to Kansas communities, businesses, and individuals. In Kansas, all water is dedicated to the use of Kansans, but subject to control by the State through numerous statutes and intricate regulations.

The Kansas Water Appropriation Act (KWAA) provides the framework for the use of both groundwater and surface water through water rights. In wet years, like 2019, you don’t hear much talk about water rights, but it just takes one drought year, like in 2012 and 2018 to remind everyone that water resources are vital to one’s livelihood and critical to economic growth. The KWAA is based on the premise of “first in time-first in right,” which means that in times of water shortage, the more senior water rights or permit holders have first rights to use the water.

What is a water right? A certified water right is a real property right, which is recorded with the register of deeds in the county wherein the place of use is located. Anyone can apply for a permit to obtain a water right. Permits can be obtained for consumptive use of groundwater or surface water. Most of eastern Kansas utilizes surface water (e.g. rivers, ponds, etc.) while central and western Kansas predominately rely on groundwater. Water rights authorize use of water for beneficial purposes such as irrigation, industrial, stockwatering, or recreation.

It is illegal to use water without holding a valid water right or applying for and receiving a permit to appropriate water in Kansas from the Kansas Department of Agriculture (KDA) - Division of Water Resources (DWR). There are some exceptions, like household use, and some other less known technical exemptions; for example, you do not need a permit if you have a pond with 15 acre-feet (AF) capacity and you use less than 15 AF of water out of it.

Maximizing the full potential of a water right is a critical component to having a sustainable output for future use. There are multiple facets to maximizing a water right, including, but not limited to perfecting the full authorized quantity, implementing best management practices to prevent any issues of non-compliance or violations resulting in monetary penalties, and taking advantage of available tools to increase the flexibility in regards to the allocation of your water right.

A permit to appropriate water goes through a developmental period prior to becoming a certified water right. Also known as a perfection period, during this time the quantity of water authorized by the permit must be developed to its full extent, otherwise the quantity is reduced to the maximum annual quantity established during that timeframe. Permits take on average 5-40 years to fully perfect. It is essential to have a good understanding of this process, along with excellent record keeping and reporting in order to maximize the water right and lock in future usage.

Did you know… there are tools and strategies you can utilize in order to maximize your water right and plan for future usage during every stage of a water right, from application to certification. For example, in an application to utilize surface water for a pond, the maximum quantity of water that can be impounded is limited by local precipitation and total area of the drainage basin; however, additional water may be included in the allocation to account for seepage.

Compliance is enforced within the regulatory realm in Kansas. Civil penalties may be issued by the DWR to those who violate the terms and conditions of their water rights and permits. Common violations include but are not limited to over pumping the maximum quantity you are allowed in your permit and incomplete and/or inaccurate water use reporting. These penalties often include a monetary component as well as a reduction in the quantity you can pump in the future or even a suspension all together. Best management practices can avoid over pumping penalties or late fees associated with failure to timely file the annual water use report.

Management tools like multi-year flex accounts and water conservation areas can be applied to increase flexibility during peak demand times for the management of your water right. For those relying on surface water, there are areas where regulations prevent pumping during the dry summer months, when the need for water is greatest. Strategic storing of water may be used to successfully manage your


According to Katie Tietsort, Water Commissioner of the DWR Topeka Field Office, successful off season storage users have utilized small impoundments that do not invoke dam permitting requirements, but allow enough storage capacity to provide necessary inches of water per acre for maximum support of operations.

Well-developed water rights are essential to protecting your investment as well as preserve water resources for the future, whether that be watering livestock in a feedlot, irrigating on your farm, building a recreational reservoir, planning for municipal growth, or improvements to industry infrastructure. If you have questions regarding water rights contact ppB Project Geologist, Charlotte Philip at 785.207.7653 or email


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