Reasonable Use Theory Law & Legal Definition


The reasonable use theory explains a riparian owner’s right of reasonable use of his/ her water for natural or artificial wants. According to the reasonable use theory, each owner has the right to make use of any water, provided that the use is reasonable in relation to the use of other riparian landowners. Owners of land located beside a river or stream is entitled to make reasonable use of the water flowing past their land for their natural or artificial wants. However, s/he cannot use it in such a manner as to affect the quality or quantity of water available to downstream owners.

The meaning of and the limitation on the use of reasonable use theory was discussed in Scott v. Slaughter, 237 Ark. 394, 397 (Ark. 1963).

(1)Meaning of the theory: “This theory appears to be based on the necessity and desirability of deriving greater benefits from the use of our abundant supply of water. It recognizes that there is no sound reason for maintaining our lakes and streams at a normal level when the water can be beneficially used without causing unreasonable damage to other riparian owners. The progress of civilization, particularly in regard to manufacturing, irrigation, and recreation, has forced the realization that a strict adherence to the uninterrupted flow doctrine placed an unwarranted limitation on the use of water, and consequently the courts developed what we now call the reasonable use theory”.

(2)Limitations on the use of this theory are:

“The rights of riparian proprietors on both navigable and unnavigable streams are to a great extent mutual, common, or correlative. The use of the stream or water by each proprietor is therefore limited to what is reasonable, having due regard for the rights of others above, below, or on the opposite shore. In general, the special rights of a riparian owner are such as are necessary for the use and enjoyment of his abutting property and the business lawfully conducted thereon, qualified only by the correlative rights of other riparian owners, and by certain rights of the public, and they are to be so exercised as not to injure others in the enjoyment of their rights.' It has been stated that each riparian owner has an equal right to make a reasonable use of waters subject to the equal rights of other owners to make the reasonable use. The purpose of the law is to secure to each riparian owner equality in the use of water as near as may be by requiring each to exercise his right reasonably and with due regard to the rights of others similarly situated”.