Library Index » Science Encyclopedia » Water Use - Freshwater Availability, How Water Is Supplied, Types Of Water Use In The United States, Right To Water Use

Water Use - Right To Water Use

rights withdrawals west march

The off-stream water-use categories described above are generally recognized as representing the most essential human uses of water. Sometimes there is not enough water available at a given location to meet all the demands for it. In those situations, who owns the water?

Water rights are held in trust by the states and may be assigned to individuals and corporations according to statutes regulating water use. A state may also challenge water uses to ensure public access to water that lies within or along its boundaries. State laws, regulations, and procedures establish how an individual, company, or other organization obtains and protects water rights. When TABLE 2.6
Acres of land being irrigated, by state, 2000
[Figures may not sum to totals because of independent rounding]
SOURCE: Adapted from Susan S. Hutson, Nancy L. Barber, Joan F. Kenny, Kristin S. Linsey, Deborah S. Lumia, and Molly A. Maupin, "Table 7. Irrigation Water Withdrawals, 2000," in Estimated Use of Water in the United States in 2000, U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey, March 2004 (revised February 2005), http://water.usgs.gov/pubs/circ/2004/circ1268/ (accessed March 30, 2005)

Irrigated land (in thousand acres)
By type of irrigation
State Sprinkler Micro-irrigation Surface Total
Alabama 68.7 1.30 0 70.0
Alaska 2.43 0 .07 2.50
Arizona 183 14.0 779 976
Arkansas 631 0 3,880 4,510
California 1,660 3,010 5,470 10,100
Colorado 1,190 1.16 2,220 3,400
Connecticut 20.6 .39 0 21.0
Delaware 81.1 .71 0 81.8
District of Columbia .32 0 0 .32
Florida 515 704 839 2,060
Georgia 1,470 73.8 0 1,540
Hawaii 16.7 105 0 122
Idaho 2,440 4.70 1,300 3,750
Illinois 365 0 0 365
Indiana 250 0 0 250
Iowa 84.5 0 0 84.5
Kansas 2,660 2.14 647 3,310
Kentucky 66.6 0 0 66.6
Louisiana 110 0 830 940
Maine 35.0 .95 .03 36.0
Maryland 57.3 3.32 0 60.6
Massachusetts 26.6 2.35 0 29.0
Michigan 401 8.67 4.87 415
Minnesota 546 0 26.9 573
Mississippi 455 0 966 1,420
Missouri 532 1.43 792 1,330
Montana 506 0 1,220 1,720
Nebraska 4,110 0 3,710 7,820
Nevada 192 0 456 647
New Hampshire 6.08 0 0 6.08
New Jersey 109 15.7 3.70 128
New Mexico 461 7.17 530 998
New York 70.0 8.73 1.84 80.6
North Carolina 193 3.70 0 196
North Dakota 200 0 26.7 227
Ohio 61.0 0 0 61.0
Oklahoma 392 1.50 113 507
Oregon 1,160 4.02 1,000 2,170
Pennsylvania 28.9 7.17 0 36.0
Rhode Island 4.48 .29 .05 4.82
South Carolina 166 3.66 17.5 187
South Dakota 276 0 78.3 354
Tennessee 51.2 5.35 3.96 60.5
Texas 4,010 89.4 2,390 6,490
Utah 526 1.68 880 1,410
Vermont 4.95 0 0 4.95
Virginia 64.3 13.9 0 78.2
Washington 1,270 49.9 252 1,570
West Virginia 2.21 0 .98 3.19
Wisconsin 355 0 0 355
Wyoming 190 4.73 964 1,160
Puerto Rico 15.5 33.0 5.35 53.8
U.S. Virgin Islands .20 0 0 .20
    Total 28,300 4,180 29,400 61,900

water rights are disputed, particularly in the West, the question is often resolved through a judicial determination known as adjudication. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (http://www.fws.gov/policy/403fw2.html, April 29, 1993), adjudications may determine "all rights to use water in a particular stream system or watershed to establish the priority, point of diversion, place and nature of use, and the quantity of water used among the various claimants." When the water involved crosses state boundaries, states enter into agreements for water sharing. When agreement cannot be reached between states, the matter is usually settled in the federal courts, or in some cases by an act of Congress.

Riparian Rights

The right of private landowners to use the water adjacent to their property in streams, lakes, ponds, and other bodies of water is known as a riparian right, and this right underlies the laws regulating water in most states in the eastern part of the country. While local statutes are often written to pertain specifically to the bodies of water they regulate, the riparian system generally assigns each landowner an equal right to "reasonable use" of the water. Defining reasonable use can lead to disputes among neighboring landowners, but it typically allows common agricultural and private uses that do not involve holding water in storage.

Doctrine of Prior Appropriation

The relative scarcity of water in the West has led to a unique set of laws regulating water use, based on what is known as the doctrine of prior appropriation. Covering both surface and groundwater, the appropriation doctrine determines water rights by applying two standards: the timing of water claims and the nature of the water use. Rather than assigning rights based on landownership, the doctrine of appropriation considers both when and why water is used. The earliest water user is considered to hold a claim to the water, and the extent of those rights are judged by whether or not that use is considered "beneficial." To determine beneficial use, two areas are considered: the purpose of the use and its efficiency (that is, that the use is not wasteful). Individual states define the scope of beneficial uses within their boundaries.

A notable difference from the riparian (landownership) system is that under the doctrine of appropriation, water rights may be forfeited if the rights holder fails to use the water in a manner approved by the state or discontinues beneficial use for a designated length of time.

Another feature of the appropriation system is that rights are not shared equally among all users of a body of water. According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, "Priority determines the order of rank of the rights to use water in a system.… [The] person first using water for a beneficial purpose has a right superior to those commencing their use later." Therefore, when water shortages occur, all rights holders are not affected equally TABLE 2.7
Livestock water withdrawals, 2000
[Figures may not sum to totals because of independent rounding]
SOURCE: Susan S. Hutson, Nancy L. Barber, Joan F. Kenny, Kristin S. Linsey, Deborah S. Lumia, and Molly A. Maupin, "Table 8. Livestock Water Withdrawals, 2000," in Estimated Use of Water in the United States in 2000, U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey, March 2004 (revised February 2005), http://water.usgs.gov/pubs/circ/2004/circ1268/ (accessed March 30, 2005)

Withdrawals (in million gallons per day) Withdrawals (in thousand acre-feet per year)
By source By source
State Ground water Surface water Total Ground water Surface water Total
Alabama
Alaska
Arizona
Arkansas
California 182 227 409 204 255 458
Colorado
Connecticut
Delaware 3.70 .22 3.92 4.15 .25 4.39
District of Columbia
Florida 31.0 1.51 32.5 34.7 1.69 36.4
Georgia 1.66 17.7 19.4 1.86 19.9 21.7
Hawaii
Idaho 27.7 7.20 34.9 31.0 8.07 39.1
Illinois 37.6 0 37.6 42.1 0 42.1
Indiana 27.3 14.6 41.9 30.6 16.4 47.0
Iowa 81.8 27.1 109 91.8 30.4 122
Kansas 87.2 23.5 111 97.7 26.3 124
Kentucky
Louisiana 4.03 3.31 7.34 4.52 3.71 8.23
Maine
Maryland 7.18 3.18 10.4 8.05 3.56 11.6
Massachusetts
Michigan 10.2 1.15 11.3 11.4 1.29 12.7
Minnesota 52.8 0 52.8 59.2 0 59.2
Mississippi
Missouri 18.3 54.1 72.4 20.5 60.6 81.1
Montana
Nebraska 76.0 17.4 93.4 85.2 19.5 105
Nevada
New Hampshire
New Jersey 1.68 0 1.68 1.88 0 1.88
New Mexico
New York
North Carolina 89.1 32.3 121 99.9 36.2 136
North Dakota
Ohio 8.20 17.1 25.3 9.19 19.2 28.4
Oklahoma 53.6 97.2 151 60.0 109 169
Oregon
Pennsylvania
Rhode Island
South Carolina
South Dakota 16.9 25.2 42.0 18.9 28.2 47.1
Tennessee
Texas 137 172 308 153 192 346
Utah
Vermont
Virginia
Washington
West Virginia
Wisconsin 60.3 6.02 66.3 67.6 6.75 74.4
Wyoming
Puerto Rico
U.S. Virgin Islands
    Total 1,010 747 1,760 1,140 838 1,980

as they are under the riparian system. Prior claims take precedence. However, because water shortages in the West can have an impact on community water needs, priority may be awarded to some vital uses regardless of the date of first claim.

Conflicts over Federal Water Rights

Sometimes conflicts over water rights arise that involve the federal government, and since the 1990s the federal government has been involved in several lengthy court battles to determine the precedence of water claims TABLE 2.8
Industrial water use, by state, 2000
[Figures may not sum to totals because of independent rounding]
SOURCE: Susan S. Hutson, Nancy L. Barber, Joan F. Kenny, Kristin S. Linsey, Deborah S. Lumia, and Molly A. Maupin, "Table 10. Industrial Self-Supplied Water Withdrawals, 2000," in Estimated Use of Water in the United States in 2000, U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey, March 2004 (revised February 2005), http://water.usgs.gov/pubs/circ/2004/circ1268/ (accessed March 30, 2005)

Withdrawals (in million gallons per day) Withdrawals (in thousand acre-feet per year)
By source and type
Ground water Surface water Total By type
State Fresh Saline Total Fresh Saline Total Fresh Saline Total Fresh Saline Total
Alabama 56.0 0 56.0 777 0 777 833 0 833 934 0 934
Alaska 4.32 0 4.32 3.80 3.86 7.66 8.12 3.86 12.0 9.10 4.33 13.4
Arizona 19.8 0 19.8 0 0 0 19.8 0 19.8 22.2 0 22.2
Arkansas 67.0 .08 67.1 66.8 0 66.8 134 .08 134 150 .09 150
California 183 0 183 5.65 13.6 19.3 188 13.6 202 211 15.3 226
Colorado 23.6 0 23.6 96.4 0 96.4 120 0 120 135 0 135
Connecticut 4.13 0 4.13 6.61 0 6.61 10.7 0 10.7 12.0 0 12.0
Delaware 17.0 0 17.0 42.5 3.25 45.7 59.4 3.25 62.7 66.6 3.64 70.3
District of Columbia 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Florida 216 0 216 74.7 1.18 75.9 291 1.18 292 326 1.32 328
Georgia 290 0 290 333 30 363 622 30.0 652 698 33.6 731
Hawaii 14.5 .85 15.4 0 0 0 14.5 .85 15.4 16.2 0.95 17.2
Idaho 35.8 0 35.8 19.7 0 19.7 55.5 0 55.5 62.2 0 62.2
Illinois 132 0 132 259 0 259 391 0 391 438 0 438
Indiana 99.7 0 99.7 2,300 0 2,300 2,400 0 2,400 2,690 0 2,690
Iowa 226 0 226 11.7 0 11.7 237 0 237 266 0 266
Kansas 46.6 0 46.6 6.74 0 6.74 53.3 0 53.3 59.8 0 59.8
Kentucky 95.2 0 95.2 222 0 222 317 0 317 356 0 356
Louisiana 285 0 285 2,400 0 2,400 2,680 0 2,680 3,010 0 3,010
Maine 9.90 0 9.90 237 0 237 247 0 247 277 0 277
Maryland 15.9 0 15.9 49.9 227 277 65.8 227 292 73.8 254 328
Massachusetts 10.7 0 10.7 26.2 0 26.2 36.8 0 36.8 41.3 0 41.3
Michigan 110 0 110 589 0 589 698 0 698 782 0 782
Minnesota 56.3 0 56.3 97.8 0 97.8 154 0 154 173 0 173
Mississippi 118 0 118 124 0 124 242 0 242 271 0 271
Missouri 29.2 0 29.2 33.5 0 33.5 62.7 0 62.7 70.3 0 70.3
Montana 31.9 0 31.9 29.3 0 29.3 61.3 0 61.3 68.7 0 68.7
Nebraska 35.5 0 35.5 2.60 0 2.60 38.1 0 38.1 42.7 0 42.7
Nevada 5.29 0 5.29 5.00 0 5.00 10.3 0 10.3 11.5 0 11.5
New Hampshire 6.95 0 6.95 37.9 0 37.9 44.9 0 44.9 50.3 0 50.3
New Jersey 65.3 0 65.3 66.2 0 66.2 132 0 132 147 0 147
New Mexico 8.80 0 8.80 1.67 0 1.67 10.5 0 10.5 11.7 0 11.7
New York 145 0 145 152 0 152 297 0 297 333 0 333
North Carolina 25.6 0 25.6 267 0 267 293 0 293 329 0 329
North Dakota 6.88 0 6.88 10.7 0 10.7 17.6 0 17.6 19.7 0 19.7
Ohio 162 0 162 645 0 645 807 0 807 905 0 905
Oklahoma 6.83 0 6.83 19.1 0 19.1 25.9 0 25.9 29.1 0 29.1
Oregon 12.1 0 12.1 183 0 183 195 0 195 218 0 218
Pennsylvania 155 0 155 1,030 0 1,030 1,190 0 1,190 1,330 0 1,330
Rhode Island 2.19 0 2.19 2.09 0 2.09 4.28 0 4.28 4.80 0 4.80
South Carolina 50.9 0 50.9 514 0 514 565 0 565 633 0 633
South Dakota 3.16 0 3.16 1.96 0 1.96 5.12 0 5.12 5.74 0 5.74
Tennessee 56.3 0 56.3 785 0 785 842 0 842 944 0 944
Texas 244 .50 244 1,200 906 2,110 1,450 907 2,350 1,620 1,020 2,640
Utah 34.3 5.08 39.4 8.38 0 8.38 42.7 5.08 47.8 47.8 5.69 53.5
Vermont 2.05 0 2.05 4.86 0 4.86 6.91 0 6.91 7.75 0 7.75
Virginia 104 0 104 365 53.3 419 470 53.3 523 526 59.7 586
Washington 138 0 138 439 39.9 479 577 39.9 617 647 44.7 692
West Virginia 9.70 0 9.70 958 0 958 968 0 968 1,090 0 1,090
Wisconsin 83.0 0 83.0 364 0 364 447 0 447 501 0 501
Wyoming 4.31 0 4.31 1.47 0 1.47 5.78 0 5.78 6.48 0 6.48
Puerto Rico 11.2 0 11.2 0 0 0 11.2 0 11.2 12.5 0 12.5
U.S. Virgin Islands .22 0 .22 3.12 0 3.12 3.34 0 3.34 3.74 0 3.74
    Total 3,570 6.51 3,580 14,900 1,280 16,200 18,500 1,280 19,700 20,700 1,440 22,100

in the West. In Tulare Lake Basin Water Storage District v. U.S. 49 Fed. Cl. 313 (2001) Judge John Wiese found that while the federal government had a right to withhold water to preserve salmon and smelt in California, by doing so the government had deprived farmers in the San Joaquin Valley of their rightful use of water. The government was ordered to pay $24.7 million to compensate the farmers, although the precise sum of the settlement was still being negotiated in December 2004. The case was considered to have negative implications for FIGURE 2.5
Water withdrawals (fresh and saline) for thermoelectric power, by state, 2000
SOURCE: Susan S. Hutson, Nancy L. Barber, Joan F. Kenny, Kristin S. Linsey, Deborah S. Lumia, and Molly A. Maupin, "Figure 12. Thermoelectric-Power Withdrawals by Water Quality and State, 2000," in Estimated Use of Water in the United States in 2000, U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey, March 2004 (revised February 2005), http://water.usgs.gov/pubs/circ/2004/circ1268/ (accessed March 30, 2005)
environmental projects in the West, where the high costs associated with preservation efforts might make them untenable. Previously the protection of endangered species was considered a higher priority than individual rights to water access.

In another case involving the federal government, Trout Unlimited v. U.S. Department of Agriculture, a conservation organization challenged the approval by the U.S. Forest Service of access to the Long Draw Reservoir in Colorado that did not establish by-pass flow regulations for water projects. A by-pass flow is the minimum amount of water needed to flow freely around a dam or diversion in order to sustain the area's aquatic life. On April 30, 2004, a federal judge determined that the Forest Service had not only the authority but also a responsibility to consider the protection of wildlife when issuing permits for water projects on federal lands.

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