Most Western states require those seeking to drill wells to obtain permits from the state or other governmental agencies.

Dowelllashmet tiffany
Associate Professor & Specialist / Texas A&M University AgriLife Extension

To be granted, these permits frequently trigger an expensive and time-consuming process, including an investigation into the availability of water and the impact on other water users.

Many states, however, contain an exemption from this permitting process for wells that will be used for livestock watering.

What are exempt livestock wells?
Although the exemptions vary by state, generally persons seeking to drill livestock wells need not obtain permits from the state.

In New Mexico, for example, a person seeking to drill a livestock well must file an application for a permit with the state engineer, upon which filing the state engineer must grant the permit.


In Texas, which utilizes local groundwater conservation districts to govern groundwater in much of the state, livestock wells are exempt from applying to the groundwater conservation districts for a permit but must register the well in accordance with groundwater conservation district rules.

Are there limitations on the quantity of water that may be withdrawn?
Most states impose some sort of limitation – either a limitation on the total production from the well or the speed at which water may be pumped – for wells to be considered exempt livestock wells.

Arizona, for example, requires that livestock wells have pumps with a maximum capacity of 35 gallons per minute or less.

In Nevada, livestock wells are exempt if the withdrawal does not exceed 2 acre-feet per year.

What is livestock watering?
Potentially, the most problematic issue surrounding livestock wells is the determination of what constitutes livestock watering.

All states with exemptions would agree that a well from which livestock drink water falls within the exception.

The issue becomes more complicated, however, when one considers other uses of water in raising livestock. What about water used for misters and dust control, for washing equipment or sanitation?

The North Dakota statute contains a very narrow definition of livestock watering and applies only to that water used “for drinking purposes by herds, flocks or bands of animals kept for commercial purposes.”

On the other end of the spectrum, a state agency applying the Washington livestock well statute found that livestock watering includes drinking, feeding, cleaning stalls, washing cattle, washing feeding or milking equipment, controlling dust surrounding animals and cooling the animals.

This issue turned into both a legal and legislative issue in South Dakota. In 2010, a South Dakota trial court held that livestock watering was limited only to the consumption of water by animals for drinking.

Under this decision, water used for other purposes related to production were not exempt and were required to obtain a permit from the state.

In response to this in 2012, however, the South Dakota Legislature modified the state’s livestock well statute in order to expand the meaning of livestock watering.

The statute now defines stock watering as “water for drinking, sanitary and general welfare purposes, and for like purposes by those caring for livestock.”

Why does this matter for the cattle industry?
It is important for cattle producers in Western states to be familiar with the livestock well statutes in their states so they can ensure they are in compliance with all state regulations when drilling livestock wells.

Further, as water continues to become a more scarce resource across the West, it is likely that more disputes revolving around livestock wells will be forthcoming.

In Texas, for example, a dispute is currently ongoing along the San Saba River between farmers who divert water to irrigate cropland and those livestock producers who divert river water for exempt livestock watering.

This issue was created by curtailment on the rights to divert water for irrigation while livestock diversions were allowed to continue.

It is likely the controversy surrounding exempt livestock wells will only increase as time goes on, and it is important that producers understand the laws and potential issues related to such wells.  end mark

00 dowell tiffany

Tiffany Dowell
Assistant Professor and Extension Specialist Agricultural Law
Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service