What are Water Rights?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Water rights are legal rights extended to users of a water source such as a spring, lake, or river. Legal systems for handling the administration of water rights vary around the world, and tend to become extremely complex when resources are limited and competition is high. Government agencies are typically responsible for apportioning water usage, although in some cases, water sources are privatized and the owners determine who can use the water and how. Globally, water rights became a serious issue in the late 20th century as the population increased and supplies of potable water became threatened in many areas.

Water rights may be adjusted in times of drought.
Water rights may be adjusted in times of drought.

People need access to water supplies for hygiene, cooking, agriculture, and manufacturing processes. In the development of water policy, all of these needs must be balanced to apportion the water fairly and reasonably. Generally, users are allotted a certain percentage of the water, and this may be adjusted in response to droughts and other changing weather conditions. Users may also lose their rights if they fail to exercise them.

Water rights may be attached to land when purchased, or may need to be purchased separately.
Water rights may be attached to land when purchased, or may need to be purchased separately.

Some regions attach water rights directly to land, ensuring that people who buy land also get water rights with it. In other cases, the rights to water and other resources are actually sold separately, and can complicate the deal considerably. People may be able to obtain a reasonable price for a home or lot, but be unable to do anything with it because they cannot reach an agreement to buy or lease the water rights associated with the property.

Discussions about water rights in the U.S. Southwest can be contentious.
Discussions about water rights in the U.S. Southwest can be contentious.

Right to water is generally recognized as a basic human right, but in some regions, water access is difficult. Polluted and otherwise contaminated water sources are a cause for concern, as is competition between differing users of a region's water. Regions with ample water supplies may sell their water to neighboring communities with more limited supplies. and fights can break out over water rights when a shared resource is involved, as seen in the Southwest of the United States with the Colorado River.

Development of environmental policy, such as water rights, usually includes input from a number of sources including residents, businesses, ecologists, and economists, all of whom may have information or insights related to the appropriate division of a resource. A big concern in this case is overallocation and subsequent shortages, especially in regions where weather patterns are irregular and basing water usage on a year with high rainfall could result in shortages during drought years, when there is not nearly as much water available.

Water access is difficult in areas with contaminated water.
Water access is difficult in areas with contaminated water.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@aplenty- How do you determine if the water rights are for sale with the property? I am moving to the Southwest from the Northeast, and I would like to learn more about water rights and buying property. Where I live, there is a well on site, so the water rights come with the land. The area I live is literally flush with water, so I have never paid a water bill in my life.

I do not want to purchase a home where the cost of water will make it a bad deal. I also want to find a home that has good quality water. I have heard that quality issues are a big concern when buying a home in that region. If you or anyone else can give me a little advice on navigating water rights when purchasing a home, I would be in your debt.


@ValleyFiah- I did not know that there was such a water shortage in Texas. I live in Arizona, and surprisingly, the direst state in the country has less of a water crisis than one would expect. I am hoping to take advantage of this down economy so I can buy a home with flood irrigation. In a sense, I am buying water rights just as much as I am buying a house.

Phoenix used to be mostly agriculture land, but as the City saw rapid expansion, agriculture was replaced with housing developments. With this agricultural land came agricultural water rights. The land is actually flooded in a controlled fashion, and landowners purchase the water by the acre-foot. If you can find one of these properties, you can literally create an oasis in the desert. The land is perfect for growing fruit trees, beautiful lawns, and gardens full of flowers and shrubs.

One of the best clues to whether a property is flood irrigated is the berms around the lawn and the fact that the lawn stays green and lush year round. With the recession, thee properties are increasingly easier to find for a good price.


What an interesting article. It seems like I have been seeing more talk about water rights lately. I recently read an article about water rights in Texas. The article was in a business publication, and it had to do with the brewing fight between oil companies and farmers as Texas undergoes a severe drought.

The Texas water rights story was interesting because it relates the importance of water to the importance of producing energy. I did not know until I read the article that energy takes a lot of fresh water to produce. The new process of hydro fracturing uses immense amounts of water to release oil and gas from saturated shale.

The oil companies are actually offering to buy the water by the barrel for far more than it would cost even a residential consumer, but farmers are turning them down. This is actually causing fuel production to slow and fuel prices to increase. It is amazing how interconnected different resources become as population rises.


I would like to point out that water rights disputes sometimes do include oceans and seas. In Israel, Jordan and Palestine, the Dead Sea, the Red Sea, and the River Jordan are at the center of an age-old dispute over water. The Dead Sea is shrinking and it is affecting the peace and lively hood of the world's driest region.

Desalination is a major source of fresh water in the region, but it is leaving behind a saltier Dead Sea and a dried up river. The rights to this water are shared between the three countries and territories are causing tension. The biggest proposal for a solution is to connect the Dead Sea to the Red Sea, creating a power generation plant, desalination plant, and a new source of water to the region. This plan is the only way to keep the status quo in a region where Israel and Jordan are both undergoing massive expansion and development, but it comes with its own problems.

I do not know all of the details of the situation, but I am anxious to find out how this is resolved. This may be the first water right issue to spark an all-out war. I am going to go out on a limb and say that the oil wars of the future will in fact be water wars.


@istria- While I agree water conservation is necessary, I think it would be a bad idea to incorporate ocean water into the debate over water rights. Negotiating water rights is such a contentious issue on so many levels, that introducing seawater into the discussion adds a whole other dimension. Progress on finding sustainable ways to distribute water would come to a standstill, and regional problem would all of a sudden become an international problem.

Water policy is becoming increasingly important, but I believe it should be dealt with in a case-by-case basis. Ocean acidification should be dealt with separately from fresh water conservation. These are just my thoughts.


I think that policy concerning water rights must be expanded to include oceans and seas. A significant portion of the world relies heavily on access to the oceans and the bounty they provide. I was recently reading a report that many of the world's mollusks are facing radical decline due to acidification of the water. Initially, this decline will significantly affect the world's poorest populations that rely on shellfish as a main source of protein, but eventually it will affect everyone, even those who do not eat seafood. What is scientifically indisputable is that this increase in ocean acidity is due to human activity.

Ocean acidification has nothing to do with climate change; rather, it is due to increase in carbon in the oceans and water pollution. Agriculture runoff is creating dead zones where there is not enough oxygen to support sea life. This often happens in the river deltas where hard-shelled organisms thrive.

Additionally, the carbon that enters the atmosphere reacts with condensation, forming a weak carbonic acid, decreasing ocean pH. The hard-shelled organisms in the ocean, organisms that provide food and shelter for almost all other ocean life, need a habitat that is slightly basic so their carbon shells can form. If we do not begin to discuss common resources life the ocean in the context of water rights, the global population is at risk of collapse.

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