Disputes over water rights are common across California, and they often arise during real estate development and property acquisitions. Water rights grant certain individuals or entities the right to use reasonable amounts of water for beneficial purposes, such as feeding animals or watering farmland.
Per the California Water Boards, individuals or entities must secure water rights if they plan to use water from a lake, stream, river or creek for some type of beneficial use. Water rights generally fall into one of three distinct categories: riparian, prescriptive or appropriative water rights.
Riparian water rights
Riparian water rights give someone the right to use water on land that touches an existing body of water, such as a stream or lake. California is one of only two western states that recognize this type of water right. Most of the time, the rights to a particular body of water change hands when the property that borders the body of water changes hands.
Prescriptive rights are rare and come into play when someone acquires someone else’s water right through adverse possession. The State Water Board issues this type of water right permit, which is similar to a “squatter’s right.”
Appropriative water rights refer to those the State Water Board may grant to individuals or entities that use water from non-riparian land or water on riparian land that would not exist as a result of natural conditions.
Those with appropriative water rights issued before 1914 have “pre-1914 water rights.” These individuals do not need to obtain water right permits to use the water they were already using unless they increased their usage of it in the time since.