blogpost water legality

North Carolina – A Summary of Water Rights

North Carolina, like many other Eastern states, applies riparian rights when determining water rights. Riparian rights is generally defined that if an individual owns property that is directly in contact with a body of navigable water, the individual have access to the water. Usually, riparian rights relate to the navigability, or access, of the water. While the owner of a lake-view home have the right to access the water, say on a boat, they do not have the right to create barriers that prevents others from navigating the water.

The part of riparian rights that is concerning to water access is that the owners of these estates also have property rights to reasonable use of this water. If the estate owner pleased, they are able to siphon water from the body of river or lake. One of the major weakness of riparian rights’ power over water usage is the vagueness behind the phrase “reasonable use.” As of Williamson v. Lock’s Creek Canal Co.  in 1878, riparian rights have been limited individuals from taking “unreasonable quantity” of water. there is no specific definition that explain the extent to which riparian rights give individuals to the water they live near. One of the few quantifiable figures in North Carolina’s water law is in 143-215.22H Registration of water withdrawals and transfers required. In this statute, individuals do not have to report any siphoning or transferring of water that they have riparian rights to if the quantity falls under 100,000 gallons per day.

Other cases have influenced water rights in North Carolina. Smith v Morganton and Young v. City of Asheville dictates that riparian rights requires that property owners have direct, physical contact with the body of water. Another defining case, Williamson v. Lock’s Creek Canal Co, broaden’s the individual’s access to water, giving them the right to use water for “industrial, domestic, and agricultural purposes” without setting a hierarchy on which usage have priority over another. This case also is important for setting another precedent by coining the notion of “material damage.” In essence, users of the water upstream cannot use such a quantity that users downstream occur material damage. The vagueness and lack of specificity for material damage makes it difficult to monitor water rights between individuals.

Other key cases relates to local government and municipalities power influence over water rights. In Pernell v. Henderson, North Carolina’s Supreme Court ruled that municipal corporation (the City of Henderson) does not have precedent access to the water that surpasses the individual riparian users of the river. In essence,  utility companies are not given riparian rights that exceeds individual rights. Instead, they are liable to any damage to riparian users downstream.

The cases surrounding water rights in North Carolina indicates several concerns.

  1. Individuals have access to up to 100,000 gallons of water a day. It is unsure whether this potential of water withdrawal is included in various water management models in North Carolina and the Catawba River, especially in the Wateree-Catawba Master Plan.
  2. The Wateree-Catawaba Master Plan is reliant on cooperation between various state, municipalities, and citizens to agree on water management. This might be difficult since Pernell v. Henderson case do not give local government power to allocate water over the individual. Since the local government should have better information regarding water allocation than the individual citizen, there can be tension over water rights between these two stakeholders.
  3. Municipality providing water to their citizen do not have the right to manage the water that grants them legal priority to other uses of water, including agricultural and industrial. While the quantity of water is not a pressing issue now, it might become problematic if climate change reduces the quantity of water in the river.

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