What are Water Rights?

Water is one of our most precious resources, if not the most.
Water is one of our most precious resources, if not the most.

What Are Water Rights?

Water is one of the most important resources on Earth. However, the use and management of water can sometimes be very controversial and a source of conflict, especially if the source of water is shared or water itself is scarce. To avoid such controversies and conflicts, water resource laws have been put in place to deal with the ownership, control, and use of water. Unlike land, water is mobile and is very difficult to regulate using laws. Also, water does not respect the political boundary and so to determine who owns it might be a challenge making it difficult to apply the water laws. Water rights are one of the interests that are attached to water laws.

Water Rights

Water rights are legal rights to use a designated water supply. They determine who gets to use water from a source such as rivers, lakes, streams, and groundwater. Water rights grant one an authority to divert water from a specific source and use it for his benefit in a non-wasteful manner. Water rights are also considered property rights but the holder does not own the water itself. The right restricted to the use but not ownership. Water rights are awarded to landowners whose properties are located near water bodies. Such property owners have the right to use as long as they do not cause harm to their upstream or downstream neighbors.

Water Right Model

There are two main models used in water rights: Riparian rights and prior appropriation model. Riparian right is common in areas with plenty of water and is a system where the landowner whose land is adjacent to the source of water has the right to the water. Prior appropriation model is whereby the first person to make use of the water supply has the first right to it, regardless of whether his land is near the source of water or not. Appropriation model is common in areas with scarce water such as arid areas.

Types of Water Rights

Water rights are derived from water laws that apply in a particular country and are generally classified into land-based and user-based rights. Land-based water rights are rights surrounding owners of land. Land-based rights grant water rights to the owner of the bank of a water source. Water rights can also be granted to a community if the bank of the water source is communally owned. For example, in California, water rights have been granted to the community where watershed occurs.

User-based rights relate to the use of water and whether one has the legal right to the source of water. The rights mainly apply to navigable waterways in which there is navigable servitude. In the US, appropriation water rights is the most common approach, especially in western states without much fresh water. The appropriation water rights grant one a right to divert and use water as long as the water is used reasonably.

An in-stream water right is also a type of water right that is less common in most countries. The rights only apply to still water which cannot be consumed. In-stream water rights are commonly used in conservation and protection of endangered species and other species that depend entirely on the stream.


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