Water Law

The Ownership, Control and Use of Water as a Resource

In the United States, the regulation and legal control of water rights varies based on the geographic location.

All states east of Texas, with the exception of Mississippi, follow what is known as the riparian doctrine. Riparian law traditionally grants certain ownership rights to anyone whose land has frontage on a body of water. Typical riparian rights include the use of the entire surface of a body of water, under the condition that such use is reasonable and does not interfere improperly with the rights of other riparian owners on the same body of water. It also includes the right to build piers, docks, landings and wharves; and to participate in fishing, boating, hunting and the irrigation of crops. It can also allow the owner the right to consume reasonable amounts of water.

In Texas, Mississippi and all states west (except Hawaii), water law is governed by the prior appropriation doctrine, which gives rights to the first person or entity to put water to a beneficial use.

Water law encompasses a broad range of issues, including:

  • The management of public waters, including rivers, streams, ponds, lakes and wetlands
  • The use and regulation of other surface waters, such as rain, floodwaters or snowmelt
  • Environmental regulation—Control of public health issues, fisheries, flood control and other matters
  • The interaction between public and private rights in water
  • Water projects –Specific state and federal laws address the components of major water projects, including construction, financing, repair and management of drainage, irrigation, navigation, flood control and other projects. Frequently, a state or local jurisdiction will establish a special improvement district with responsibility for a water project. In many instances, the special improvement district obtains initial funding through the federal government, but maintains the project through local taxes or assessments.
  • The implications of treaties with Native American tribes

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