From: NPR Staff - NPR
Published June 16, 2013 08:15 AM

East vs West - Surface Water Rights

There are two doctrines that govern surface water rights in the U.S. — one for the West and one for the East.

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The riparian doctrine covers the East. "[Under] the riparian doctrine, if you live close to the river or to that water body [or] lake, you have reasonable rights to use that water," says Venki Uddameri, a professor and the director of water resources at Texas Tech University.

The Western U.S. uses the prior appropriation doctrine. "As people started exploring the West and started looking for water for agriculture and mining, there was a need to move water away from the rivers," Uddameri tells Jacki Lyden, host of weekends on All Things Considered.

People wanted a claim to water but often lived too far away from a river for the riparian doctrine to make any sense. So the prior appropriation doctrine was devised.

Water rights attorney Bill Ganong says, "When all of this country was developing, no one was really thinking about fish or wildlife."

For decades, the government encouraged draining marshland and converting it to farms. As a result, Ganong says, the state of Oregon handed out lots of water rights.

"You don't own the water," he says. "Your water right is the right to use it; it's a right of use."

In an arid place like the Klamath Basin, there often isn't enough water available for everyone who has a right to use it. And the person with the oldest water right gets all the water they are entitled to first.

Grand Tetons image via Shutterstock.

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