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HeinOnline

Water Rights & Resources

This collection focuses on the various uses for water, from hydropower, to agriculture, to drinking water, and how increasing pressures on water supply from climate change exacerbates historical tensions over who has access to water for what purpose.

Topic Overview

HeinOnline's Water Rights & Resources is dedicated to understanding the complex interplay of state and federal laws that govern all aspects of water in society, from its municipal use to restoring its pristine condition. Collecting congressional documents, books, legislative histories on major legislation, and Supreme Court briefs on related cases, this collection touches on a wide range of water issues. Topics covered include irrigation, hydropower, water conservation, drinking water quality, and tribal water rights.

What are water rights?

Water rights refers to the right of a user to access water from a particular source. It is one facet of the complex network of water laws that exist at both the state and federal level.

Water law in the United States differs across the country based on geographic conditions.

Riparian Law - riparian water rights are found mostly in the eastern United States. A person who owns the land next to a body of water has riparian rights to that water. She can remove water from the source and has access to it for swimming, boating, and fishing.

Prior appropriation - the doctrine of prior appropriation is found in parts of the western United States. It is a "first come, first served" model of water rights; the first claimant to a water source has the right to use it for a beneficial use. Appropriators must use their claim or risk losing it.

Reserved rights - the 1908 Supreme Court case Winters v. United States created the reserved rights doctrine of water law. The case found that the public lands and Indian reservations created by the federal government have an implied right to sufficient water. The case also held that the federal government has rights to water that supersede state appropriation laws. This doctrine was famously solidified in the Supreme Court case Arizona v. California in 1963.

Once the right to use water is granted, what about the quality of that water?

The Clean Water Act is the major federal law regulating water pollution in the United States.

Enacted in 1972, the Clean Water Act:

  • regulates the discharge of pollutants into the waters of the United States.
  • sets quality standards for surface waters (streams, rivers, lakes, and any other body of water above ground). 

The Safe Drinking Water Act is the main federal law ensuring safe drinking water for the public.

Enacted in 1974, the Act mandates the EPA to:

  • set drinking water quality standards.
  • oversee all public water systems to make sure they follow standards.

The EPA also addresses groundwater contamination through two hazardous waste cleanup acts: the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (which governs solid and hazardous waste disposal) and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980, commonly known as the Superfund program (which investigates and cleans up sites contaminated with hazardous substances).