Water Rules and Rights

Water Rules and Rights


Water is a vital and precious natural resource, and with burgeoning populations demanding more and more of its use, it can quickly become a very limited resource. That's why every state has formed an official government department, organization or system to regulate, administer and adjudicate the water interests within its' borders. Water rules and restrictions – which can briefly be encapsulated as “the way each jurisdiction governs who uses how much water, the types of uses it allows, and when the waters can be used” – can vary from state to state, but they also all have certain basic similarities.

For example, as cited previously, virtually all states regulate their water management issues – whether surface or ground water (a few states have different rules for the two) – through a state Department of Natural Resources, Department of Water Management, or the Water Division of a similarly-named and responsible government office or administrative system. This will generally always be the office to contact for questions concerning the rules of water use, rights, restrictions and applications for water redirection (which simply means taking water from its source and putting it to use). Many of these Departments are headed by a State Engineer.

Most states west of the Mississippi River administer their water law based on the doctrine of prior appropriation, which basically means that the first person to obtain a water right on a stream or other source is the last one to be shut off in times of low stream flows. The earliest date of application for a permit to use the water usually becomes the priority date of the right. East of the Mississippi, on the other hand, the majority of states use the riparian doctrine, although it's being slowly replaced with alternative water allocation methods. Riparian doctrine states that only landowners who have water flowing naturally through their property have an automatic claim to its use. Examples of other basic water rules include the legal requirement that all ground water wells be registered with the appropriate state water-governing agency and the edict that surface or ground water may only be redirected if it's used for a beneficial purpose without waste, to name just a few.

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