In the USA there are two main types of water rights: riparian and prior-appropriation.

  • Riparian
    • Non-navigable water is a public good like air or sunlight and not owned by the government. Navigable waters still belong to the government, with state law defining “navigable.” The division between navigable, public waters and private, non-navigable waters is typically the normal high water mark (line where vegetation does not grow due to tidal presence of water).
    • The water right is tied to the land.
    • Owners are still limited by “reasonable use” to avoid affecting downstream riparian rights.Water cannot be significantly diverted without consideration of downstream rights.
    • In times of drought, water is usually apportioned according to amount of frontage to the body of water.
    • This water right is typically found East of the Mississippi River, particularly in the original 13 colonies.
  • Prior-Appropriation
    • All water rights belong to the state government. They then issue permits and licenses as requested by land owners. Typically, a landowner requests a permit for a particular type of water use (to which the state will specify an amount of use). The landowner must show beneficial use of the water permit within a limited time frame to convert it into a license. Types of water right can be household use, irrigation, firefighting, recreational, industrial, or others defined by the state.
    • The water right is unconnected to the land and can be separately sold or mortgaged. If you are buying land, make sure the water rights are included!
    • Owners are limited to the amount and type of use permitted or licensed by the state. If a permit is not converted to a license, it will expire and must be reapplied for.
    • In times of drought, water is apportioned in order of seniority of license. Oldest license may use his full amount, then the next oldest license, etc.
    • This water right is typically found in western states, and applies to all states in the American Redoubt. Look to your state’s department of water rights for more detail!

Key water rights details to pay attention to when you acquire a retreat property:

  • For any developed water usage, does the state have a license on file?
  • If a permit is on file rather than a license, how long until it expires?
  • What type of water right was granted for the developed or intended water use?
  • If there is no license or permit on file with the state, does the owner have any documentation?
  • If the water right usage is unknown by the state, do you want the current owner to fix it?
  • When the property transfers to your name, how do you inform the state water department that the rights have transferred to your name?
    • (Just like a private purchase of a car, the appropriate state department won’t know that property now belongs to you until you inform them with the correct piece of paper.)

ID Water Rights at Idaho Department of Water Resources (IDWR)

MT Water Rights at Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC)

WY Water Rights at Wyoming State Engineer’s Office