Water Rights

water rights, in law, the qualified privilege of a landowner to use the water adjacent to or flowing through his property. The privilege, also known as riparian rights, may be modified or even denied because of the competing needs of other private-property holders or of the community at large. There is no private ownership of such water in most cases, and hence it cannot ordinarily be impounded and sold. The owner, however, may use the water for his ordinary private purposes, such as stock watering or irrigation, and then return the unused residue. Most uses of water affect its purity to some degree, and recent environmental legislation has greatly restricted the amount of permissible water-use pollution. Water projects such as dams that threaten the survival of rare species can be blocked under the Endangered Species Act. In certain parts of the United States—especially in the arid and semiarid regions of the Southwest—the prior appropriation rule applies, and the first user of water, whether or not he owns land abutting the water, has the unrestrained right to it without regard to his neighbor's needs. Throughout the United States, the rights of private owners in water can be set aside to construct public works, such as dams and irrigation projects, and agreements at the local, state, and regional level may govern water rights and use. The ownership of a stream bed may depend upon whether the stream is or is not a navigable water. If it is navigable, some states claim title to the bed, whereas in other states the rule is the same as in the case of nonnavigable streams, namely that an abutting owner's property extends to the middle of the bed and that those with property along both banks of a stretch own the enclosed portion of the bed. If the stream is navigable, the owner must permit public use for passage and transportation; if it is nonnavigable, the owner may exclude all but other riparian owners from using the stream. If the stream shifts course, ownership of the former bed is not affected. Underground and percolating waters have no easily determined course, and the usual American practice is not to restrict a landowner who taps and exploits these waters; however, in some states the rights of those who may be adversely affected must be considered.

See S. Bhatt, Environmental Laws and Water Resources Management (1986).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Water: Economics, Management and Demand
Melvyn Kay; Tom Franks; Laurence Smith.
E & FN Spon, 1997
Forging New Rights in Western Waters
Robert G. Dunbar.
University of Nebraska Press, 1983
Flooding the Courtrooms: Law and Water in the Far West
M. Catherine Miller.
University of Nebraska Press, 1993
Water and American Government: The Reclamation Bureau, National Water Policy, and the West, 1902-1935
Donald J. Pisani.
University of California Press, 2002
Markets for Federal Water: Subsidies, Property Rights, and the Bureau of Reclamation
Richard W. Wahl.
Resources for the Future, 1989
Marine and Coastal Law: Cases and Materials
Dennis W. Nixon.
Praeger Publishers, 1994
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "Riparian Rights and the Navigational Servitude"
Property and Persuasion: Essays on the History, Theory, and Rhetoric of Ownership
Carol M. Rose.
Westview Press, 1994
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 6 "Energy and Efficiency in the Realignment of Common Law Water Rights"
Water and Climate in the Western United States
William M. Lewis Jr.
University Press of Colorado, 2003
Librarian’s tip: Chap. Fourteen "Constraints of Law and Policy on the Management of Western Water"
Water Rights and the Common Wealth
Freyfogle, Eric T.
Environmental Law, Vol. 26, No. 1, Spring 1996
To Defend Our Water with the Blood of Our Veins: The Struggle for Resources in Colonial Puebla
Sonya Lipsett-Rivera.
University of New Mexico Press, 1999
Water Management in Islam
Naser I. Faruqui; Asit K. Biswas; Murad J. Bino.
United Nations University Press, 2001
Pollution in a Promised Land: An Environmental History of Israel
Alon Tal.
University of California Press, 2002
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 7 "The Quantity and Quality of Israel's Water Resources"
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