Water Law and Legal Definition

The legal term for water rights is called "riparian rights". Riparian rights are the legal rights of owners of land bordering on a river or other body of water. A "riparian owner" is a person who owns land that runs into a river. Riparian rights are not ownership rights but rights of access to the water such as for drinking water, bathing, or irrigation.

State laws vary, but the extent of riparian rights non-domestic uses, such as for diversion of water to sell to others, for industrial purposes, to mine the land under the water for gravel or minerals or for docks and marinas, is unsettled. Riparian rights may include the right to build a wharf outwards to a navigable depth or to take emergency measures to prevent flooding. A riparian owner may not act to deny riparian rights to the owner of downstream properties along the waterway, meaning the water may not be dammed and channelled away from its natural course.

States and local governments establish water management departments to oversee the drainage of surface water and the reclamation of wetlands, swamplands, overflowed lands and tidal marshes and flood prevention and the conservation, development, utilization and disposal of water. Some of the duties of water management include:

(1) To locate and establish levees, drains or canals and to cause to be constructed, straightened, widened or deepened any ditch, drain or watercourse;

(2) To construct for the purposes of flood prevention or the conservation, development, utilization or disposal of water works of improvement, including levees, embankments, floodwater retarding structures, water storage structures, outlets and tide gates, flood gates and pumping plants for preventing floods, providing drainage, reducing sediment and reclaiming wet, swamp or overflowed lands and other related works of improvement that will carry out the purposes of this article; and

(3) To provide maintenance for such installations.