According to the prior appropriation doctrine, first in time means first in right. However, this is only true, if the state water agency understands, recognizes, and enforces the groundwater – surface water connectivity. In other words, managing groundwater permits and surface water rights as one – when this is the case. Currently, this occurs in select western basins. Two examples are the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer in Idaho, and the Lower South Platte in Colorado. In these markets, junior groundwater users are called by senior users. AKA first in time, first in right.
Unfortunately, this is not the case in most western water markets. Most basins have yet to document, understand, and administered this connectivity. In these locations, a junior groundwater right is a far greater asset than a senior surface water right. Take for example, the image below.
Lets assume the groundwater and surface water in this photo are connected. If the average annual call date on this stream is 1869, – and this basin does not shutdown groundwater permits for surface water flows- it is better to have the 1971 groundwater right than the 1871 surface water right. Who cares if your priority is 100 years junior? The better water right is the younger groundwater permit.
This scenario plays out across the West. Not only with irrigation, but more importantly, with municipalities too. I mention this now, and will follow-up with more later because I think this is going to be a big deal.