Water Rights – What You Might Want to Know

Only a few people are interested in this subject. It might even seem appealing only to real property owners where a body of water exists.


As the term implies, water rights pertain to a landowner’s rights to exploit or use a body of water adjacent to his or her property. Only a few owners of real estate fully understand water rights but its main idea goes this way: You don’t own or have automatic rights to a body of water, such as a stream or river, that passes through a piece of land even if you own that land . You may have rights to that body of water but these are solely dependent on the type of body of water that gets in your property.


As a matter of general principle, water rights are attached to the land and it has nothing to do with the owner.


  • If the owner sells that land, the right is automatically transferred to the new landowner.
  • If the water that touches your property is navigable, the state owns it right down from the bed up to its low water level.


Water rights are classified into two. These are the Riparian rights and Littoral rights.


Riparian Rights


Riparian rights refer to the right given to a person who owns the land where a river or stream runs along. If that river or stream is not navigable, the landowner owns the land beneath that body of water up to the center of the waterway.


Riparian rights are further classified into two and these are generally dependent upon the landowner’s intent to use the water in his property.


Natural use – this is applicable when the owner intends to use the water for drinking, bathing, washing, and raising farm animals.


Artificial use – this riparian right is granted to a landowner who intends to use the water for artificial uses such as large-scale irrigation or other commercial purposes. A landowner cannot have automatic rights to use a body of water for artificial uses unless all the other landowners upstream and downstream have sufficient supply of water for natural uses.


Courts usually grant natural use riparian rights to a landowner who intends to use a small amount of water to irrigate a small farm or garden.


Littoral Rights


Littoral rights are granted to people who own a piece land that borders a large body of navigable water such as a sea, river or lake. It grants a landowner unlimited access to the water in question. His or her ownership of the land however is limited to the median high-water mark. The state owns everything underneath.


A landowner with littoral rights may use the body of water for agricultural, commercial or recreational purposes. He or she may also construct docks in the water to serve as spaces for water crafts and these to reach navigable waters.


Only a few people are aware of the details of water rights. But legal professionals in the real estate world know too well of its importance. If you own a piece of land that is touched by a river, sea or stream, you have a potential to come face-to-face with water rights issues. You should get some background about it while it’s still early. Seek the advice of legal experts like the Shepard Law attorneys so that you will be enlightened about its legal complexities.

photo credit: Chris Lukzkow (flickr.com)


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