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Water rights get national attention: Important lessons for Texas businesses

On Behalf of | Feb 9, 2023 | Water Law |

Water is a foundational need. Without this precious resource, we cannot survive. As such, it is no surprise that battles over water rights can get serious. In a recent example that has received national attention, seven states are fighting over their right to water from the Colorado River. This river provides water and electricity for over 40 million people throughout the west and the battle between Colorado, California, Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming is years — some would even argue decades — in the making.

A bit of history

The Colorado river provides water as it makes its way through the west providing benefits to the states it passes through along the way but the two southernmost states, California and Arizona, arguably have the most to lose as this river faces record lows. California, which uses the water primarily for agriculture, and Arizona, which needs the water for its populous dessert cities like Phoenix, disagree over who has rights to this water.

The legal details

California essentially argues that they have the best legal argument for water rights to the river. This argument is rooted in the historic use of the prior appropriations doctrine. This doctrine essentially states that whoever uses the water first has water rights over those who come afterwards.

Arizona counters that if California wins water will not go to the tribes located within Arizona (in violation of long-standing treaties) and directly impact people in the cities who depend on this water.

The resolution

At the time of this writing, there is not a resolution. The US Bureau of Reclamation called on the states to come up with a plan to cut two to four million acre feet of water usage. Even after an extension, the states have failed to do so. If a suitable resolution is not devised in the near future, the federal government could step in potentially leading to a Supreme Court battle.

The lessons for Texas businesses

Water rights impact many different types of business including agriculture, ranching, and mining. Generally, owners of land bordering water have the right to use that water for their needs. A rancher with land along a river, for example, can generally use the river as a water source for cattle. An issue could be present if a landowner pumps the water or otherwise impacts the natural flow of the water source.

The case above provides an extreme example, as it involves many different states and a clash of federal, state, and local laws. It is important to watch the case because if it reaches the Supreme Court a ruling would impact the entire country, including Texas.

It is also important to point out that water issues can become complex, even when within a single state like Texas. This is because in addition to addressing federal regulations, landowners will also need to navigate state and municipality laws. To make things even more difficult water rights in Texas are not always straightforward. In some situations landowners may need a permit to use water as surface water is owned by the state.

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