This is the second part in a series focusing on water law in Nebraska. The first covered what constitutes a water right in Nebraska. A water right is a permissive right to use the water, not a property right to the water itself. This next section will focus on the provision of what constitutes a beneficial use of water in Nebraska.
As outlined in Neb. Rev. Stat. § 46-229, “Any appropriation of water must be for a beneficial use.” This takes a little work to parse out the exact definition of beneficial use. To figure out what this requirement specifies, case law is the guiding source as to what constitutes beneficial use. The case that outlines a beneficial use is Hostetler v. State, 203 Neb. 776, 280 N.W.2d 75 (1979). In this case the landowners (the Hostetlers) inherited a piece of land which included a water right to irrigate a pasture. The previous owner told the Hostetlers that the water right had been previously lost because of lack of use. After conversations with the Department of Water Resource’s engineer, the Hostetlers were notified that there was no actual cancellation of the appropriation. After this, the Hostetlers built a temporary diversion dam. The dam was used only once to see if water would flow in the canal. After this diversion, Mr. Hostetler did not divert any additional water nor did he irrigate any section of the land, although he did water some cattle via this canal. Later on, the Department gave the landowners notice to cancel their water right based on the non-use of the water appropriation for more than three years. The Hostetlers challenged the cancellation of the water right, arguing that the diversion did in fact constitute a beneficial use.
The court disagreed with the Hostetlers’ argument, holding that “to constitute a beneficial use within the meaning of the appropriation statute, the use must be one described in the appropriation,” which was irrigating the land. In this specific case, the Hostetlers did not use the water for the purpose of one described in the appropriation. They instead only diverted a small amount, which was used to water cattle, which did not constitute a use described in this appropriation. Ultimately the court ruled that “in the case of an appropriation for irrigation purposes, actual application of the water to the land for the purpose of irrigation” is what constitutes a beneficial use.
Now, this case did outline a few excuses for beneficial use. These include the lack of water in the diversion source or, on the other hand, too much rainfall or moisture so that the diversion of water would result in waste of the resource. Ultimately, the beneficial use requirement would be excused if the appropriation purpose could not be met due to natural occurrences such as drought or normal-to-excessive rainfall.
The takeaways from this handout is that water appropriated under Nebraska law must be used for a beneficial use. The beneficial use must fit within the purpose of the original appropriation. So if the purpose of the water right was for irrigation, the water must be used for irrigation or be in danger of being cancelled if not used within a three year timeframe. There are excuses for such non-use, such as too much water to the point that diversion of water for irrigation purposes would go against good farming practices, or that there was too little water in the stream to divert.
If you have any questions regarding water use and your land, please contact us. As mentioned this is part of a series, so please come back often to learn about water law in Nebraska and important terms and issues regarding water and agriculture.