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Water Rights – Why Do They Exist? Which Kinds Are There?

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By Shawn Pike, Rights to Water Engineering

Why is there such a thing as water rights? Water is something everyone needs. Except maybe W.C. Fields; he tried to stick to alcohol and when offered water said, “Can’t stand the stuff.” Anyway, water is a shared resource, and in some places there isn’t enough for what people need (or at least want).Conterra

California is mostly desert where people live and where food is grown. Water is scarce when it comes to all desired uses. Even in a wet year, surface water flows decrease through the summer and fall.

If you did not have enough water, how would you get it? Use more from the city, buy it from the water district, drill a well, truck it in, or dig a ditch from a creek or river. No matter how you get it, in California it got to you under some kind of right.Technoflo

What kind of surface water rights are there? The simple list in rough order or priority is:

  • Pueblo rights, the one belonging to Los Angeles being famous
  • Rancho rights granted by the government of Spain or Mexico, prior to Statehood in 1850
  • Riparian – a parcel that touches a stream, spring or lake may use a “reasonable and beneficial” amount, quantity and rate undefined, per the California Constitution, Article X, Section 2
  • Groundwater from a well, similar to surface water riparian but for the overlying land
  • Appropriative in 1913 and prior, aka “pre-1914”, for parcels not touching a body of water, which started with gold mining and is now mostly for agriculture, environmental, and urban/industrial uses
  • Appropriative post-1914, issued by the State Water Resources Control Board
  • Adjudicated, or decreed, from Federal District or State Superior Court
  • Prescriptive, which isn’t a definite right until decreed by a court
  • Contracts, which are not rights but rely on some already-existing right

Note that adjudicated water rights can take any class of water rights and, in effect, make them the most senior water rights for a particular stream, for a particular season.

That’s useful to know even in summary form. Of course there are books, court cases, both in the thousands, and the California Water Code, and interstate compacts that more particularly define what these are.

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