What are water rights?

Published Jan 31, 2023


This brief overview of the water rights1Kruzman (2021); Grafton, R. Quentin et al. The Australian National University, Crawford School of Economics and Government. “Water Markets: Australia’s Murray-Darling Basin and the U.S. Southwest.” Working Paper 15797. March 2010 at 4; Gisser, Micha. “Water markets and the prior appropriation doctrine.” Journal of Contemporary Water Research and Education. Vol. 121, Iss. 1. 2002 at 24; Burness, H. Stuart and James P. Quirk. “Appropriative water rights and the efficient allocation of resources.” The American Economic Review. Vol. 69, No. 1. March 1979 at 25. system does not detail aspects such as water trading/transfers and the role of water districts, which add further complexity to the water allocation landscape.

Appropriative Rights: Established in California during the gold rush, these water rights, codified by the Water Commission Act of 1914, gave white settlers who first diverted surface water for “reasonable and beneficial” uses in California priority water rights, known as “first in time, first in right.” These entitlements can be for surface water or groundwater and can be bought and sold.

Riparian Rights: Property owners can use surface water that touches their property, as long as their consumption does not diminish the source for other users.

Overlying Rights: These give landowners the right to use groundwater from aquifers beneath their property for beneficial uses.