Real Estate Terms

Water Rights Definition

Having land connected to water can be a huge plus for some property owners. It also can be sought after by businesses. Water rights can be somewhat complicated when it comes to the legality, but don’t worry; that’s what we’re here for! In short, water rights are the rights to use rivers, lakes, or oceans that fall adjacent to land.

What Are Water Rights?

Definition: Water rights are the rights to use rivers, lakes, or oceans that fall adjacent to land. Owning land connected to water can add lots of value to a property. Water rights are appurtenant, meaning they run with the land and not with the owner. Different types of water rights exist based on various forms of water and where the property lies. The two basic forms of water rights are:

  • Riparian rights
  • Littoral rights

Example: Many oceanfront businesses adjacent to water may depend on their water rights for business. If for some reason, their rights are infringed, or compromised, it could be detrimental to their operations.

What Are Riparian Rights?

Under riparian rights, all landowners whose properties adjoin a river or stream, have the right to make reasonable use of it as it flows through or over their properties. The only limitation owners have is they cannot stop or prevent the flow of water.  

Riparian rights vary from state to state but most grant unrestricted use. Unrestricted use means owners have the right to access it for swimming, boating, fishing, building docs, etc.

The general rule of thumb is the riparian owner has the right of access and use, to and from the waters; they just cannot stop or prevent the flow of it.

It’s also important to note that in most cases, this form of water is considered navigational. Navigational water means it is treated as a public highway; meaning the public has the right to travel on it.

What Are Littoral Rights?

Littoral rights pertain to landowners whose land borders large, navigable lakes and oceans.

Littoral rights are usually concerned with the use and enjoyment of the shore. The landowner has access to the water but only owns the land up to the edge of the water. While the state owns the land under the water, and the United States has an overriding interest in preserving it for public navigation.

What Is Water Diversion?

Water diversion is the removal or transfer of water from one place to another.  As a general rule of thumb, it’s best not to divert any water if possible. Diverting water can have a negative impact on the surrounding environment and ecosystem.

In some cases, like owning a farm, water diversion may be required, but it’s essential to make sure it’s legal before doing it. Each state and municipality will have regulations and limits on the extent of water diversion that is allowed. Some places may allow for certain irrigation uses of the water, while others may not.

Depending on where you live, landowners may apply for water diversion rights that would allow for the transport of water away from its source. As always it’s best to check with your local municipality before doing so.

What Is the Difference Between Water Rights?

To recap, riparian rights are those rights and obligations of land adjacent to watercourses such as navigable streams and rivers, whereas littoral rights are a landowner’s claim to use the body of water bordering his or her property as well as the use of its shore area.

Water rights are appurtenant, meaning they run with the land and not to the owner. In other words, if an oceanfront property is sold, the new owner gains the littoral rights, and the seller relinquishes his or her rights.

A good way to remember the difference is when you hear the word littoral, think of lake, L for lake. And when you hear riparian rights, think of river. R for river. Pretty easy, right?

Other Important Water Rights Terms


Accretion is the slow process of growth or acquisition of land, typically when soil is deposited by the natural action of water. Long term accretion can actually increase the size of a property.


The opposite of accretion, erosion is the wearing away of land or soil by the action of wind, water, currents, or ice. Long-term erosion can decrease the size of a property.


Avulsion is the immediate action of adding or tearing away land by violent acts from natural causes. An example of avulsion is a dam breaking or a hurricane.

The difference between accretion, erosion, and avulsion is the element of force. Accretion and erosion is a gradual loss or addition to land, while avulsion is a sudden addition or violent subtraction.

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