Al Swan

Water Rights

Water Rights - The Basics

California law regarding water rights is extensive and can sometimes be complicated. However, I will attempt to keep in relatively simple in explaining the basics.

Purchasing real estate in California may include a water right. Water rights include the use of underground water, such as acquired through a well, and the use of surface water, such as from creeks, rivers, and lakes.

Basically, the state of California and the federal government owns all the water in the state. It is through licenses, permits, contracts, and government approval that individuals and entities are allowed to "use" the water. Therefore, a water right is not an ownership right, but rather a use right. It is a right to use a "reasonable" amount of water for a beneficial purpose.

The two common water rights that are recognized under California law are Riparian Rights and Appropriative Rights.

Riparian Water Rights

In California, an owner of land that is contiguous to a water source generally has a Riparian Water Right. Basically, most any land the touches or borders a creek, stream, river, or lake has a right to use the water for a reasonable and beneficial use.

Riparian rights in general, with some exceptions:

  • The right is subject to "reasonable and beneficial use" for domestic and agricultural use.
  • Only the natural flow of the water can be diverted or used
  • A riparian right is senior to most other surface water rights
  • The right arises by ownership of the riparian land
  • The right cannot be gained by use or lost through non-use
  • The water cannot be stored for future use
  • The water can only be used by the riparian land
  • The available source of water on a water course is a shared use
  • No riparian user has priority over another on the same water course

For additional information please see: California Water Board

Appropriative Water Rights

An appropriative right is basically the removal of water from a surface water source for delivery to non-adjacent (non-riparian) parcels. As with Riparian water rights, the right for the water is based upon a "reasonable and beneficial use".

Appropriative water rights in general: 

  • Appropriative rights may be sold or transferred
  • The right is not based upon land ownership
  • A permit is required through the State Water Control Board
  • Water is acquired by use and may be lost through non-use
  • The water may be stored for future use

For additional information please see: California Water Board



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NOTICE: Information is subject to errors, omissions, prior sale, change or withdrawal without notice, and approval of purchase by owner. Properties presented may be offered by various real estate brokers and individuals and may not currently be available for sale. Information regarding land classifications, acreages, carrying capacities, potential profits, water rights, tax consequences, zoning, etc., are intended only as general guidelines and have been provided by sources deemed reliable, but whose accuracy we cannot guarantee. Prospective buyers should also be aware that the photographs in this presentation may have been digitally enhanced. Maps, images, diagrams and charts included are for general information and are not represented as being accurate or of professional quality. California Land and Ranch and its representatives do not assume responsibility for accuracy or completeness of the information presented. Prospective buyers should verify all information to their satisfaction and seek outside professional advice as appropriate.

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