• Water Law Overview

    Water law, rivers, lakes, lawyers, attorneysWater law is a property-based system of law and is especially relevant for those who own waterfront property. The three water law systems in the United States are prior appropriation, riparian, and hybrid systems. However, in each of these systems, the property owner does not own the surface waters adjacent to or on his land; he only owns the right to use the water.

    Prior appropriation is where the first person to settle on a parcel of land gets the water rights. You can have the water rights when you put the water to a beneficial use anywhere on your land. You will have seniority of the right to use the water over later settlers who wish to use it. You keep that right to use the water as long as it continues to be used for a beneficial use. An example is if you buy a ranch along a river. You are the first person to settle along this river. You are entitled to use as much water as needed as long as it is for a beneficial use. A beneficial use can be irrigation or domestic purposes. A few years later, someone settles on the ranch beside yours that is also adjacent to the river. This person will only be able to use the water that you do not use. If the river flows at 10 cubic feet per second and you draw out 8 cubic feet per second for your beneficial use, then whoever settled after you can only draw out 2 cubic feet per second plus any backflow from your property. You may also transfer your water right to someone else who pays you a fee for the water and can put the water to beneficial use. Only Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming have this prior appropriation system where permits are issued to regulate the consumption of water.

    Riparianism is the most common system in the country with 29 states following this system. Riparianism basically means those who own waterfront property have the right to use the water and have a right to have a clean and natural flow of water past their property. Those who do not own waterfront property do not have a right to use the water but still may do so by either paying the riparian property owner a fee or by adverse possession. Riparian property owners are permitted to use the water reasonably in comparison to all the other riparian property owners along that body of water. If there is not enough water for everyone to use, then everyone must use less, proportionally based on the size of the land they own. They would also have the right to build any wharfs as long as the wharf does not interfere with water transportation.
    California, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, and Washington have a hybrid water law system.

    A hybrid system combines some aspects of riparianism with some aspects of prior appropriation. Each state has its own specifics, and there is no single hybrid system that all these states follow.
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