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Understanding California riparian water rights

On Behalf of | Apr 15, 2024 | Environmental Law

In both private and public sectors, water usage is a primary concern that affects everyone. Business owners and private homeowners must adhere to local, state and federal regulations regarding water rights. Riparian water rights, specifically, pertain to landowners whose land adjoins bodies of water, such as lakes, rivers or streams.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management oversees regulation of land that exists in the public domain. Such land does not have riparian water rights. Only two states, including California, currently recognize riparian water rights.

Riparian water rights apply to land where drainage flows back to water source

If a landowner uses water from an adjoining river, lake or stream, riparian water rights apply provided the land drainage on the property leads back to the source from where one had taken the water. Riparian rights exist only for naturally flowing water that one has diverted. Whether a particular season is wet or dry may affect water usage under riparian rights since water usage must come from a naturally flowing source.

Subdivided land does not have riparian rights

If a landowner has subdivided the property so that some of the land is no longer touching the main naturally flowing water source, the subdivided land no longer has riparian water rights. Rights only apply to the smallest piece of land directly attached to the river, lake or stream that is providing the water for usage. In short, water used under riparian rights can only be of use on the parcel of land connected to the water source.

Squatters’ rights and prescriptive rights create complex legal issues

Long ago, people could acquire prescriptive rights to use water on their land. This basically means that they would have permission from someone who had water rights to use the water from the same source. Squatters’ rights, on the other hand, refers to the use of land or water by someone who does not own the land but has gained possession of it by using it without owning legal title.

California does not recognize riparian water rights through squatting or prescriptive usage. To acquire a new water right in this state, one must obtain a permit from the State Water Board. Transfer and enforcement of water rights is a complex legal topic. It’s best to seek counsel from a knowledgeable source rather than trying to handle riparian water rights issues on your own. Trying to do so may only make matters worse and can lead to civil penalties that include substantial fines.