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Prior appropriation: In
water rights Water right in water law Water (chemical formula H2O) is an Inorganic compound, inorganic, transparent, tasteless, odorless, and Color of water, nearly colorless chemical substance, which is the main constituent of Earth's hydrosphere an ...
, the legal doctrine of prior appropriation holds that the first person to take a quantity of water from a water source for "
beneficial use "Beneficial use" is a legal term describing a person's right to enjoy the benefits of specific property Property is a system of rights that gives people legal control of valuable things, and also refers to the valuable things themselves. Depe ...
" (agricultural, industrial or household) has the right to continue to use that quantity of water for that purpose. 78 Am. Jur. 2d Waters § 355 (2021). These individuals are the senior users. Senior users do not "own" the water source. Rather, they have the right to use the water source within the limitations of a state's established prior appropriation laws. Douglas County v. Sedalia Water and Sanitation District, 343 P.3d 16 (Colo. 2015).


Origin of the doctrine

The legal doctrine of prior appropriation
water rights Water right in water law Water (chemical formula H2O) is an Inorganic compound, inorganic, transparent, tasteless, odorless, and Color of water, nearly colorless chemical substance, which is the main constituent of Earth's hydrosphere an ...
holds that the first person to take a quantity of water from a water source for "
beneficial use "Beneficial use" is a legal term describing a person's right to enjoy the benefits of specific property Property is a system of rights that gives people legal control of valuable things, and also refers to the valuable things themselves. Depe ...
" (agricultural, industrial or household) has the right to continue to use that quantity of water for that purpose. Subsequent users can take the remaining water for their own beneficial use if they do not impinge on the rights of previous users. The doctrine developed in the
Western United States The Western United States (also called the American West, the Far West, and the West) is the region In geography, regions are areas that are broadly divided by physical characteristics (physical geography), human impact characteristics (human ...
and is different from
riparian water rights Riparian water rights (or simply riparian rights) is a system for allocating water among those who possess land along its path. It has its origins in English common law In law, common law (also known as judicial precedent or judge-made law, or ...
, which are applied in the rest of the
United States The United States of America (U.S.A. or USA), commonly known as the United States (U.S. or US) or America, is a country Continental United States, primarily located in North America. It consists of 50 U.S. state, states, a Washington, D.C., ...

United States
. Much of the prior appropriation doctrine in the Western U.S. is derived from the
civil law Civil law may refer to: * Civil law (common law) Civil law is a major branch of the law.Glanville Williams. ''Learning the Law''. Eleventh Edition. Stevens. 1982. p. 2. In common law legal systems such as England and Wales and the law of the United ...
legal system from when much of the region was under
Mexico Mexico, officially the United Mexican States, is a country A country is a distinct territorial body or political entity A polity is an identifiable political entity—any group of people who have a collective identity, who are organi ...

Mexico
and
Spain , image_flag = Bandera de España.svg , image_coat = Escudo de España (mazonado).svg , national_motto = , national_anthem = , image_map = , map_caption = , image_map2 ...

Spain
. Water is very scarce in the West and so must be allocated sparingly, based on the productivity of its use. The right is also allotted to those who are "first in time of use." The appropriation doctrine originated in California around the time of the Gold Rush where miners were looking for ways to increase the amount of water available for mining operations. The 1855
California Supreme Court The Supreme Court of California is the highest and final court of appeals in the courts A court is any person or institution, often as a government A government is the system or group of people governing an organized community, g ...
case of ''Irwin v. Phillips'' is what brought the water appropriation problems to light. Matthew Irwin diverted a stream for his mining operation. Shortly afterward, Robert Phillips started a mining operation downstream and eventually tried to divert the water back to its original streambed. The case was taken all the way to the California Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the appropriation law.


Details

The legal details vary from state to state; however, the general principle is that water rights are unconnected to land ownership, and can be sold or mortgaged like other property. These rights can be lost over time if non-use of the water source is demonstrated or if the water has not been used for a certain number of years. There are four essential elements: intent, diversion, beneficial use, and priority. The first person to use a quantity of water from a water source for a
beneficial use "Beneficial use" is a legal term describing a person's right to enjoy the benefits of specific property Property is a system of rights that gives people legal control of valuable things, and also refers to the valuable things themselves. Depe ...
has the right to continue to use that quantity of water for that purpose. Subsequent users can use the remaining water for their own beneficial purposes provided that they do not impinge on the rights of previous users; this is the priority element of the doctrine. In addition to this, a user may not change the intent in which he is appropriating water such that the change hinders the use by another. These ''Preservation of Conditions'' were granted to the second user after ''Farmers High Line v. City of Golden'' (CO 1954). Beneficial use is commonly defined as
agricultural Agriculture is the science, art and practice of cultivating plants and livestock. Agriculture was the key development in the rise of sedentary Image:Family watching television 1958.jpg, Exercise trends, Increases in sedentary behaviors su ...

agricultural
,
industrial Industrial may also refer to: Industry * Industrial archaeology, the study of the history of the industry * Industrial engineering, engineering dealing with the optimization of complex industrial processes or systems * Industrial loan company, a f ...
or
household A household consists of one or several persons who live in the same dwelling In law, a dwelling (also residence, abode) is a self-contained unit of accommodation used by one or more households as a home A home, or domicile, is a s ...

household
use.
Ecological Ecology (from el, οἶκος, "house" and el, -λογία, label=none, "study of") is the study of the relationships between living organisms, including humans, and their physical environment. Ecology considers organisms In biol ...
purposes, such as maintaining a natural body of water and the wildlife that depends on it, were not initially deemed as beneficial uses in some Western states but have been accepted in some jurisdictions. The extent to which private parties may own such rights varies among the states. Each water right has a yearly quantity and an appropriation date. Each year, the user with the earliest appropriation date (known as the "senior appropriator") may use up to their full allocation (provided the water source can supply it). Then the user with the next earliest appropriation date may use their full allocation and so on. In cases of water shortages, prior-appropriation does not require a senior user to utilize less water than usual. Therefore, during times of
drought A drought is an event of prolonged shortages in the water supply, whether atmospheric (below-average precipitation In meteorology Meteorology is a branch of the (which include and ), with a major focus on . The study of meteorolog ...

drought
, users with junior appropriation dates might not receive their full allocation or even any water at all.When a water right is sold, it retains its original appropriation date. Only the amount of water historically consumed can be transferred if a water right is sold. For example, if
alfalfa Alfalfa () (''Medicago sativa''), also called lucerne, is a perennial A perennial plant or simply perennial is a plant Plants are predominantly photosynthetic eukaryotes of the Kingdom (biology), kingdom Plantae. Historically, the ...

alfalfa
is grown, using
flood irrigation Surface irrigation is where water is applied and distributed over the soil surface by gravity. It is by far the most common form of irrigation throughout the world and has been practiced in many areas virtually unchanged for thousands of years. S ...
, the amount of the
return flow Return flow is surface and subsurface water that leaves the field following application of irrigation Irrigation is the agricultural Agriculture is the practice of cultivating plants and livestock. Agriculture was the key development in ...
may not be transferred, only the amount that would be necessary to irrigate the amount of alfalfa historically grown. If a water right is not used for a beneficial purpose for a period of time it may lapse under the doctrine of abandonment. Abandonment of a water right is rare, but occurred in Colorado in a case involving the South Fork of San Isabel Creek in
Saguache County, Colorado Saguache County (suh-WATCH ) is a county located in the U.S. state of Colorado. As of the 2020 United States Census, 2020 census, the population was 6,368. The county seat is Saguache, Colorado, Saguache. History Saguache County was formed Dece ...

Saguache County, Colorado
. For water sources with many users, a government or quasi-government agency is usually charged with overseeing allocations. Allocations involving water sources that cross state borders or international borders can be quite contentious, and are generally governed by
federal Federal or foederal (archaic) may refer to: Politics General *Federal monarchy, a federation of monarchies *Federation, or ''Federal state'' (federal system), a type of government characterized by both a central (federal) government and states or ...
court rulings, interstate agreements and international
treaties A treaty is a formal, legally binding written agreement between actors in international law International law, also known as public international law and law of nations, is the set of rules, norms, and standards generally recognized as bi ...

treaties
. Even though water markets are increasingly gaining ground, many have criticized the prior appropriation system for failing to adequately adjust to society's evolving values. For example, the vast majority of water in the West still is allocated to agricultural uses despite the cries for additional water from growing cities. Additionally, the high demand for the allocation of water can cause an over-appropriation of the waters. This means that there are more water rights for that particular stream than there is water actually available. For example, in Nevada, approximately 45 basins are over-appropriated. Similarly, environmentalists and those who use rivers for recreational and/or scenic purposes have demanded that more water be left in rivers and streams. Climate change is starting to play a role in diminishing water rights. In recent years, water levels have seen a decrease. The prior appropriation system has in many ways inhibited these calls for change.


Prior appropriation adoptions

Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Washington, Wyoming all use the prior appropriation doctrine, with permitting and reporting as their regulatory system. Much of the prior appropriation doctrine in the Southwest and Western U.S. states are a legacy from the area being under the civil law systems of Mexico and Spain, where prior appropriation is heavily practiced. California and Texas recognize a dual doctrine system that employs both riparian and prior appropriation rights. Oregon mainly uses the prior appropriation doctrine with some remnants of the riparian doctrine. Landowners have rights to water on their own land at a certain time at which it is then incorporated into the appropriation system. In these cases, riparian rights take precedence, unless they are not claimed by a certain date or are not used within a certain number of years. Eight states engage in prior appropriation while not recognizing the riparian doctrine: Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. Arizona adopted the prior appropriation doctrine such that a person could acquire this water right simply by applying it to beneficial use and posting an appropriation notice at the point of diversion. Ariz. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 45-141 Waters (2021). On June 12, 1919, they enacted the Public Water Code in which the person must apply for and obtain a permit for water use. However, prior appropriation does not always determine water allocation in these states because the Secretary of the Interior can allocate water without worrying about senior and junior appropriators. Arizona v. California, 373 U.S. 546 (1963). For example, the secretary of the interior has the power to allocate and regulate water for the purpose of conserving water and wildlife. 43 C.F.R. § 427.1 Water Conservation (2008). Such regulations could limit a senior user's water use. Various federal regulations can also have priority over senior users. For example, the
Endangered Species Act of 1973 The Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA or "The Act"; 16 U.S.C. § 1531 et seq. Notes and references Notes References Sources * * * Further reading * * {{Latin phrases Lists of Latin phrases, E ...) is the primary law in the Uni ...
seeks to protect animals at risk of extinction, so a senior user's rights may be restricted in favor of federal regulation protecting the habitats of endangered animals. 16 U.S.C. § 1531 Conservation (1973). The appropriation doctrine was adopted in Colorado in 1872 when the territorial court ruled in ''Yunker v. Nichols'', 1 Colo. 552 (1872), that a non-riparian user who had previously applied part of the water from a stream to beneficial use had superior rights to the water with respect to a riparian owner who claimed a right to use of all the water at a later time. The question was not squarely presented again to the Colorado Court until 1882 when in the landmark case, ''Coffin v. Left Hand Ditch Co.'', 6 Colo. 443 (1882), the court explicitly adopted the appropriation doctrine and rejected the riparian doctrine, citing Colorado irrigation and mining practices and the nature of the climate. The decision in ''Coffin'' ruled that prior to adoption of the appropriation doctrine in the Colorado Constitution of 1876 that the riparian doctrine had never been the law in Colorado. Within 20 years the appropriation doctrine, the so-called Colorado Doctrine, had been adopted, in whole or part, by most of the states in the Western United States that had an arid climate. New Mexico enacted its appropriate Surface-Water Code in 1907. Later, in 1931, New Mexico enacted the Underground Water Law that adapted the state's surface law to ground water. The prior-appropriation doctrine was adopted in 1973 in Montana under the 1973 Water Use Act. Later, they then passed the Montana Ground Water Assessment Act in 1991. In 1967, Texas passed the Water Rights Adjudication Act in regards to surface waters such that the allocation of these waters was under a unified permit system.


Prior appropriation applied to other goods

Water is not the only public good that has been subject to prior appropriation. The same ''first in time, first in right'' theory has been used in the United States to encourage and give a legal framework for other commercial activities. The early prospectors and miners in the
California Gold Rush The California Gold Rush (1848–1855) was a that began on January 24, 1848, when was found by at in . The news of gold brought approximately 300,000 people to from the rest of the United States and abroad. The sudden influx of gold into ...
of 1849, and later gold and silver rushes in the western United States, applied appropriation theory to mineral deposits. The first one to discover and begin mining a deposit was acknowledged to have a legal right to mine. Because appropriation theory in mineral lands and water rights developed in the same time and place, it is likely that they influenced one another. This was seen in the California case ''Irwin v. Phillips'', 5 Cal. 140 (1855) which decided a water rights dispute between two non-riparian miners on the basis of "first in time, first in right", a maxim drawn from equity. As with water rights, mining rights could be forfeited by nonuse. The miners codes were later legalized by the federal government in 1866, and then in the
Mining Law of 1872 The General Mining Act of 1872 is a United States federal law that authorizes and governs prospecting and mining for economic minerals, such as gold, platinum, and silver, on federal Public land#United States, public lands. This law, approved on Ma ...
. The
Homestead Act The Homestead Acts were several laws in the United States by which an applicant could acquire ownership of Federal lands, government land or the American frontier, public domain, typically called a Homestead (buildings), homestead. In all, mo ...
of 1862 granted legal title to the first farmer to put public land into agricultural production. This ''first in time'' right to agricultural land may have been influenced by appropriation theory applied to mineral lands. In recent years, there has been some discussion of limiting air pollution by granting rights to existing pollution sources. Then it has been argued, a free
cap and trade Emissions trading is a market-based approach to controlling pollution Pollution is the introduction of contaminant Contamination is the presence of a constituent, impurity, or some other undesirable element that spoils, corrupts, infect ...
market could develop in pollution rights. This would be prior appropriation theory applied to air pollution. Recent concern over
carbon dioxide Carbon dioxide (chemical formula A chemical formula is a way of presenting information about the chemical proportions of s that constitute a particular or molecule, using symbols, numbers, and sometimes also other symbols, such as pare ...

carbon dioxide
and
global warming Contemporary climate change includes both the global warming caused by humans, and its impacts on Earth's weather patterns. There have been previous periods of climate change, but the current changes are more rapid than any known even ...

global warming
has led to an economic market in CO2 emissions, in which some companies wish to balance emissions increases by offsetting decreases in existing emissions sources. This is essentially acknowledging a prior appropriation right to existing CO2 emitters.


See also

*
Air rights Air rights are the property interest in the "space" above the earth's surface. Generally speaking, owning, or renting, land or a building A building, or edifice, is a structure with a roof and walls standing more or less permanently in one pla ...
*
Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 In general, a rural area or a countryside is a geographic area that is located outside town A town is a human settlement In geography Geography (from Greek: , ''geographia'', literally "earth description") is a field o ...
(in the UK) *
Crown land Crown land (sometimes spelled crownland), also known as royal domain, is a territorial area belonging to the monarch, who personifies . It is the equivalent of an and passes with the monarchy, being inseparable from it. Today, in s such as Cana ...
(see "Logging and mineral rights" under
Canada Canada is a country in the northern part of North America North America is a continent A continent is any of several large landmasses. Generally identified by convention (norm), convention rather than any strict criteria, ...

Canada
) *
Easement An easement is a Nonpossessory interest in land, nonpossessory right to use and/or enter onto the real property of another without possessing it. It is "best typified in the right of way which one landowner, A, may enjoy over the land of another ...
("the right of use over the real property of another") *
Land rights Land law is the form of law Law is a system A system is a group of Interaction, interacting or interrelated elements that act according to a set of rules to form a unified whole. A system, surrounded and influenced by its environment ...
*
Right of public access to the wilderness The freedom to roam, or "everyman's right", is the general public's right to access certain public or privately owned land, lakes, and rivers for recreation and exercise. The right is sometimes called the right of public access to the wilderness ...
*
Riparian water rights Riparian water rights (or simply riparian rights) is a system for allocating water among those who possess land along its path. It has its origins in English common law In law, common law (also known as judicial precedent or judge-made law, or ...
* United States groundwater law *
Civil law (legal system) Civil law is a legal system The contemporary national legal systems are generally based on one of four basic systems A system is a group of interacting or interrelated elements that act according to a set of rules to form a unified whole. ...


References


External links


Western States Water Laws
BLM site. {{Authority control Law and economics Environmental economics Water law in the United States