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Student Project: Riparian Rights: Introduction

This is a research guide which further explains riparian rights and provides examples for each kind of water right in three different states.

Riparian Rights

Under riparianism, the right to use water is tied to the ownership of riparian land, property that abuts a natural watercourse.  Riparian landowners are entitled to make reasonable use of the waters that abut their property subject to the reasonable use of other riparians.  This research guide explores riparian rights in the United States, specifically California, New York, and Colorado. These three states demonstrate the various views on riparian rights from West Coast, Midwest, and East Coast such as common-law Riparianism, Prior Appropriation, and Regulated Riparianism. 

In This Guide

  • This guide covers the three different forms of riparian rights exemplified in three different states. Outside of California, Colorado, and New York, states can alter their riparian laws to fit their landscape and need.  Therefore, the states selected are designed to provide examples.
  • Riparianism is a generally well-settled, and historic area of law.  Therefore, there will be no current awareness tab in this research guide. 

What are Riparian Rights?

Riparian Land - "A tract of land that borders on a watercourse or lake, whether or not it includes a part of the bed of the watercourse or lake." Restatement (Second) of Torts § 843 (1979). *Westlaw subscription required. 

Riparian Land - "1. Land that includes part of the bed of a watercourse or lake. 2. Land that borders on a public watercourse or public lake whose bed is owned by the public." Black's Law Dictionary (10th edition 2014). 

The Riparian-Rights Doctrine - "The rule that owners of land bordering on a waterway have equal rights to use the water passing through or by their property."  Black's Law Dictionary (10th edition 2014).

Riparian Right on The right of one owning riparian land to have access to and use of the shore and water"

What is a Watermark?

Depending on state law, where a land owner's riparian land begins and ends depends on the high and/or low watermark. 

Watermark - "A mark indicating the highest or lowest point to which water rises or falls."

High-water mark - "The shoreline of a sea reached by the water at high tide. . . 3. In a river not subject to tides, the line that the river impresses on the soil by covering it long enough to deprive it of agricultural value. — Also termed high-water line."

Low-water mark - "The shoreline of a sea marking the edge of the water at the lowest point of the ordinary ebb tide. 2. In a river, the point to which the water recedes at its lowest stage."

Black's Law Dictionary (10th ed. 2014).

Riparian Land

Elements of Riparian Rights

  • Under Riparianism, those who own riparian land (land that abuts a natural watercourse) have right to reasonable use. The Reasonable Use Doctrine states that riparian landowners are entitled to make reasonable use of the waters that abut their property subject to the reasonable use of other riparians
  • Under the Prior Appropriation Doctrine, water rights are gained by putting water to beneficial use (first in time, first in right).  Under this doctrine, the right to water is premised on use and is not dependent on ownership of property abutting a watercourse.  A water user can acquire water right by: (1) Demonstrating an intent to appropriate water and providing notice, (2) Making a diversion of water from a natural source, (3) Applying the water to beneficial use without waste. The owner of the water right can only take the amount for use and nothing more.
  • Regulated Riparianism is a modern statutory program where riparianism is guided by a permitting system.  The permit is obtained from the state prior to diversion or withdrawal and must be renewed and reconsidered periodically. Regulated riparianism departs from common law riparianism by looking at the projected use before any water is ever actually used.

See Klein, Cheever, Birdsong, Natural Resources Law: A Place-Based Book of Problems & Cases (Aspen 3d ed. 2013).

United States Code

Legislative history was unavailable for 16 U.S.C.A. § 460aa–8.

Key Cases


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Rachel Bauer
Elisabeth Haub School of Law at Pace University, J.D. Expected 2019
Acquisitions Editor, Pace Environmental Law Review

Search Terms

  • Riparian Rights
  • Riparian Land
  • Watermark
  • Reasonable Use
  • Littoral Rights
  • Water Law
  • Natural Resources Law

National Research Guides on Water Law & Natural Resources Law

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