Water Rights in Nebraska: A Resource for Land Transactions

As many of you know, in a state that’s heavily involved in agricultural production, understanding these rights is essential. But before we dive in, let’s journey through a brief history of water rights in Nebraska.

A Brief History of Irrigation Rights in Nebraska

Nebraska, with its vast stretches of fertile land, has a rich history of agricultural production. However, this wouldn’t be possible without the state’s abundant water resources, primarily the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the world’s largest underground water tables.

The development and use of water in Nebraska led to the evolution of water rights policies tailored to the state’s unique needs:

  1. Riparian Rights: Although originating from English common law and more commonly found in the eastern U.S., Nebraska initially adopted the riparian doctrine. However, as demand for water increased, especially for irrigation, Nebraska transitioned towards the prior appropriation system.
  2. Prior Appropriation in Nebraska: The “first come, first served” principle became vital as Nebraska’s agricultural sector grew. By this system, those who first used the water source and put it to a beneficial use had priority.

The Importance of Water Rights in Nebraska Land Transactions

In the Cornhusker State, water rights hold particular significance due to the state’s agricultural prominence. Here’s what every Nebraskan buyer and seller should be aware of:

  1. Establish the Existence and Type of Water Rights: In Nebraska, due to its dependence on resources like the Ogallala Aquifer, understanding the type and priority date of water rights is crucial.
  2. Water Rights are Separate from Land: Remember, in Nebraska, owning a parcel doesn’t automatically grant you water rights. They can be, and often are, sold or transferred separately.
  3. Nebraska Department of Natural Resources (NDNR): Transfers of water rights in Nebraska often involve the NDNR. It’s essential to understand the state’s regulatory framework and comply with its requirements.
  4. Economic Implications for Nebraskans: Given the significance of agriculture in Nebraska, water rights can heavily impact the value of land. A parcel with secured water rights will invariably have a higher market value.


History of Ownership in Nebraska

Nebraska Surface Water: First-in-Time Rule

Nebraska’s surface waters, essential to its heritage and economy, are governed by the Appropriative First-in-Time, First-in-Right Rule. Stemming from the state constitution, this principle dictates water diversion based on the date the water right was obtained. The priority system ensures that during shortages, entities with earlier water rights get precedence.

Groundwater and Correlative Rights

Nebraska’s Correlative Rights oversee groundwater usage. Landowners can tap into aquifers for beneficial purposes under public management. Notably:

  • In 1957, the Unicameral mandated the registration of all irrigation wells.
  • Today, before drilling, landowners must secure a permit from their local Natural Resources District (NRD). Once drilling completes, the NDNR registers the well in a statewide database.

Evolution of Natural Resources Districts

Nebraska underwent a significant shift in 1972, transitioning from Soil and Water Conservation Districts to the creation of Natural Resources Districts (NRD’s). This change materialized after the passage of LB 1357. The authority to regulate groundwater use was later bestowed upon the NRD’s in 1975 with LB 577.

Groundwater Management

The Unicameral’s LB 1106 in 1985 compelled NRD’s to formulate groundwater management plans for water quality and quantity. Each plan, greenlit by the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, outlined individual NRD’s strategies to maintain water quality and control groundwater usage.

Nebraska Chemigation Act

1986 saw the inception of the Nebraska Chemigation Act (LB 284) aimed at protecting water quality. The subsequent year brought about Title-195, which mandated safety gear, chemigator training, and equipment inspections for individual irrigation systems.

Learn More about the History of Nebraska Water Policies Here

Understand How Water Rights Affect your Land's Value

For Nebraskans, understanding the intricacies of irrigation and water rights isn’t just academic – it’s practical and deeply influential on the state’s economy and way of life. As always, when considering land transactions, it’s imperative to consult with local experts who are familiar with the state’s unique landscape.

Here at Marshall Land Brokers & Auctioneers, we’re well-versed in Nebraska’s water rights landscape. If you’re considering a land transaction in our great state, let our expertise guide you through the process.

More Water Right Resources: 
Nebraska Water Administration Frequently Asked Questions
Ownership Preview of Groundwater Wells and Surface Water Rights
Play Video

Compare listings

Price Range From To