Who Owns Water?
The question seems simple enough. But why are our water rights so difficult to understand? Let’s peel back some of layers of this complex issue.
Who owns water? Can we demand that highly purified water be delivered to our doorsteps—is that our right? Do we “own” the water on our properties from rivers, streams and lakes? What about our neighbors with dry land? If we capture rainwater that falls from the sky, does that water belong to us—or another entity, such as the state?
Do Indian tribes who settled land have “first dibs” on water flowing from a stream to fish vs. a rancher using the water to irrigate land for growing crops or feeding cattle? Does a corporation that builds a plant in a water-starved country owe residents water if that company uses more than its share, or sucks the wells dry? Do we have a right to tell water utilities they can’t shut off our water—we need it to live—even if we do not pay the water bills?
There are no simple answers to these water rights issues.
The reality is, “owning” water is not as straightforward as one would think. Of course, water is essential for life, but how much of a right do we truly have to water?
Perhaps you never considered your right to water because it flows freely from the tap. Maybe the resource has never been restricted in your community; water is seemingly abundant. You hear news reports about water wars and water scarcity, but it’s not hitting your household (just yet).
But how long can you truly count on water’s availability—and if water scarcity hits close to home, what right do you have to get your “fair share?”
Water rights are riddled with economic, legal, moral and regulatory implications. Answering the question, “Who owns water?” is not easy. Let’s explore it further.
Who’s Right? The Riparian and Appropriative Argument
Is water like air? We need it to live; it’s a resource we share. Or, is water this century’s gold, and those who stake claim can enjoy the riches while the rest scrape for handouts? Let’s consider this.
We all breathe air, and one could say that air is a public good. We can’t contain the air, nor should we want to because it sustains life. One individual’s use of the air does not negatively affect another’s use. We all breathe it in.
Is water the same? That depends on who you ask.
The answer is yes, according to the United Nations (UN), which adopted a historic resolution in 2010 recognizing the human right to safe and clean drinking water and sanitation as a human right.
The question of water as a public or private right is hotly debated, with water wars waging throughout the United States and world, and regulatory divides based on riparian vs. appropriative water rights: a right to water that is on your land vs. “first dibs” rules.
It’s important to understand riparian and appropriative rights, where a divide in water “ownership” lies in the United States. Depending on where you live, the state has a different view on who owns water. California follows both riparian and appropriative rights.
Following the traditional Riparian Doctrine, these rights were first exercised when European settlers began making claims on water. If the water was on their land, they had a right to it and could not stop water from reaching other landowners. (Conversely, and perhaps controversially, think of today’s complex dam systems that help to control and distribute water.)
Now, what about those without water on their land? Don’t they have a right to water, too? That’s where appropriative rights come into play, especially in the dry Western United States.
Going back to the Wild West and development in this geography, there was a need to transport water from rivers, lakes and streams to dry areas for agriculture, industry and general use. Appropriative rights allocate water based on who started using it first—first come, first serve. (There are arguments over whether “first” is based on a permit or actually existing on the land first—in which case, the Native Indian would win, depending on the location.)
The Klamath River in Oregon is an example of this.
In Oregon’s arid Klamath Basin, a conflict over prior appropriation has sparked debate, according to a National Public Radio (NPR) report in June 2013 that explains how many ranchers along the upper tributaries of the Klamath River were ordered by the state to stop irrigating the land. The reason: Klamath Indian Tribes downstream said they needed more water to protect fishing. The tribe has a right to the water (they inhabited the land first), so following appropriation rights the tribe has first dibs.
The Klamath tribes are negotiating with ranchers, who draw from the river to irrigate land for agriculture. The Indians feel a responsibility to ensure the health and sustainability of the river ecosystem.
Meanwhile, more recently in Detroit, Michigan, a different type of water rights battle is underway. Up to 3,000 households per week have been getting their water shut-off for failure to pay water bills. Up to 150,000 customers are threatened with local shut-offs, according to Detroit news outlet, The Guardian. Community organizations have filed a human rights complaint to the United Nations. Civil disobedience is mounting. There’s talk of water justice. Who will be served—the people who argue a right to the water that was shut off by the Detroit Water Department—or the utility, which reportedly needs to recoup millions because of unpaid bills?
Water Politics: An Ongoing War
Water rights spark moral discussions that stem into concerns over quality, scarcity, disposal and management. These are pressing water issues that cannot be ignored.
It’s no surprise that water rights debates have been filling courtrooms, and this is nothing new. The debate about who owns water goes back to ancient Rome and there’s still no consensus.
Water rights can create divides among states.
The Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint (ACF) Rivers flow through three states—Alabama, Georgia and Florida—and those states draw on this source for drinking, industry, agriculture, recreation and maintaining the ecosystem. But there’s a long “water war” being fought among these states; Florida is suing Georgia because of the amount of water the Sunshine State gets by the time it flows downstream. It’s a two-decade battle and counting.
Again, who owns this water?
Water is becoming a more privatized industry than ever before, with nearly 73 million people now served by a private company or private-public partnership, according to the National Association of Water Companies. The Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management cited that private water companies served nearly 300 million people in 2002, up from 51 million in 1990.
The water rights debate extends beyond the water in our lakes, rivers, streams and aquifers. Even water that falls from the sky is being “righted” and regulated. Colorado and Washington have rainwater and snowmelt collection restrictions that limit the free use of this resource. Rainwater reclamation is illegal in Washington because rainwater is considered a natural resource that is owned by the state, falling under the jurisdiction of the State Department of Ecology.
How far will we go in effort to claim water?
A Right To Know: Understanding the Complexity of Water Ownership
If everyone has the right to clean, abundant water at their doorsteps, we need systems to make this happen—centralized systems. We need to source it, treat it, deliver it…regulate it (that’s the question, at least).
As the discussion on water rights deepen, we peel away more layers of complexity in our search for answers. Let’s keep asking these questions: Does anyone really own the water? Is our water right the right to use it? What happens when there isn’t enough water for those who have the right to use it?
Our responsibility as individuals extends beyond claiming water, but figuring a way to use and dispose of it in a responsible way. The more we know, the more we can act as responsible consumers of this resource.