What’s your favorite place to sit back and listen to the world? Mine is the porch of an old log cabin up in the Blue Ridge. The greatest thing about that place is that it sits high up over a stream as it drops through a steep gorge–high up, but still close enough to hear the water flowing and falling, constantly, soothingly. That movement of water through our world is absolutely fundamental to life as we know it. That’s one reason that the sound of a mountain stream or of ocean waves (or in their absence, an urban fountain or garden water feature) is so deeply satisfying to humans. But that incessant movement of water also makes it hard to fit into traditional, naive notions of property rights. In two earlier posts, I discussed some ways in which water, especially groundwater and stormwater, challenge and extend our understanding of property. Now let’s consider surface water when it is collected into streams, rivers and lakes, again focusing on the law of North Carolina (which is very similar to the law of most eastern states in the U.S.). In this entry I’ll refer to water collected into streams, rivers and lakes as “surface water” even though there is a lot more to be said about “diffuse” surface water, aka “stormwater,” but that must await Part 3.
North Carolina is a riparian state, meaning that anyone who owns land adjoining surface water has the right to make reasonable use of that water. In other words, you can’t separate the right to use water in a stream from the ownership of the land beside the stream. This is different from the law in most of the western United States, where one may acquire rights to use water in a stream from whomever made earlier uses of that water–a system called “prior appropriation.” In the West, the right to use the water can be legally separated from the ownership of land beside the water; not so in North Carolina or, generally, in the eastern states.
Riparian rights are the closest one gets in North Carolina to “ownership” of flowing surface water. So it’s important to understand the extent and limits of riparian rights. Their extent and limits today differ from their historical extent. The concept of riparianism goes way back, at least to the Roman Empire. The Roman Emperor Justinian I produced a codification of law between 529 and 534 A.D. that spelled out a fundamental principle of riparianism then and, with the European conquest of North America and the importation of English common law, on into colonial Carolina:
Aqua currit et debet currerer, ut currerer solebat
or, “water runs, and should run, as it has always run.” In other words, a riparian could make use of water on his property, but could not materially change the quantity, quality or location of a stream channel in making use of that water. Today we call this idea the “natural flow doctrine.” It worked fine for riparians who just needed enough water for household use, plus small numbers of livestock and a garden.
However, the natural flow doctrine was ill-suited for an Industrial Revolution based initially on water power–the damming of streams to turn water wheels, which necessarily changed flow regimes. So 19th century courts in the Carolinas, as elsewhere in the United States, morphed riparian rights from “natural flow” to “reasonable use,” a vague idea but one well-suited for case-by-case judicial decision making. The core idea was that a riparian could make changes in the quantity, quality and stream morphology so long as those changes were economically productive, weren’t wasteful, and didn’t cause undue harm to other riparians. I have noted in another post the great legal historical work of Prof. Morton Horwitz in explaining this transformation, and also the fact that North Carolina’s legislature had already made statutory changes to the natural flow doctrine shortly after statehood to deal with drainage problems (aka “diffused surface water” or “stormwater”).
Legislatures elsewhere in the eastern United States have continued to refine the common law idea of riparianism, so that many knowledgeable commentators now speak of eastern water law as “regulated riparianism.” North Carolina is usually included on the list of regulated riparian states because of the passage of the Water Use Act of 1967, which allows the Environmental Management Commission, a State agency in DENR, to limit water extraction in areas of the State where there is some imbalance between supply and demand. See G.S. 143-215.13. In practice this has only been done to address over-pumping of groundwater, and then only in a fifteen-county area of the central coastal plain, and after a decade of fights over the rule. North Carolina is one of the only states in the United States that does not require a permit for extraction of surface water, no matter how large the withdrawal or the consumptive use, so it’s accurate to rank the state as one of, if not the very least, regulated states for surface water withdrawals. We have “regulated” riparianism in the same way that a guy who straps a folding chair to a couple of pontoons has a bass boat: technically, at best, but not functionally. This lack of government attention to withdrawals has worked well in times of plentiful water. It is not a good system, though, for managing scarcity, if and when future droughts occur.
Outside the capacity use area(s), then, “ownership” of surface water in North Carolina means the right of a riparian to extract a reasonable amount of water for economically productive use, along with a handful of other traditional riparian rights, all subject to regulation by the State. The most important of these additional riparian rights are:
- access for swimming, boating, and fishing
- access to the navigable part of a stream, including the right to wharf out if necessary to reach navigable water
- the right to accretions, which are increases in land caused by deposition of rocks and sediment in the stream channel.
How reasonable is a given use of water by a riparian, when another riparian claims to be injured by the use? The Romans and their Latin language gave us the word riparian, and also the word “rival,” and it is no coincidence that “rival” sounds like our word “river.” In Latin, a “rivalis” or rival was one who shared the same stream, a fellow riparian. (Or one who shared the same mistress). In cases between water rivals, it is difficult to predict outcomes in states like North Carolina that rely mainly on the common law. There are many ancient cases that are hard to reconcile with modern economy and science, and there are few judges or lawyers who understand water law. The result is great uncertainty. It’s easy for courts to place undue reliance on the wrong old case or concept.
For example, in 2011 the North Carolina Court of Appeals decided a major case (L&S Water Power v. Piedmont Triad Rural Water Authority, 712 S.E.2d 146 (N.C. Ct. App. 2011) that pitted the rights of small hydro producers in the Deep River against a regional water authority that built a new reservoir to provide drinking water to the central piedmont area around Greensboro and High Point. The small hydro producers claimed that the dam impaired their ability to generate electricity and that this amounted to a taking of their property. The water authority countered that the State had given it a permit requiring a certain schedule of releases of water from the reservoir, that the downstream effects of this release schedule had been studied and found to be reasonable by the State, and that at times the releases actually augmented, rather than reducing, flows in the river. The court held for the hydro producers, finding that the undammed flows were essentially a property right that was taken on the occasions that flows were reduced upstream. A major link in the court’s chain of reasoning came from cases involving stormwater drainage problems, which cases held that entities (like the water authority) that had eminent domain power did not get the benefit of riparian “reasonable use” doctrine and were essentially strictly liable for any injury to riparian interests. The court viewed the hydropower producers as holding riparian rights, even though the power they generate from the water is not used on their riparian lands.
I believe the decision in L&S Water Power rested on several mistakes that amount to a failure to understand water law. Its result is to give riparians in North Carolina an argument to own an actual amount of flow in a stream, at least in cases where their rivals are public entities (or others with eminent domain power, perhaps including energy utilities and oil and gas drillers). This turns the water law clock back toward the days of “natural flow” doctrine. Perhaps the result could prove useful to future environmental litigants who oppose water extraction. However it turns out, it doesn’t seem to square with the thrust of most legislation at the State level these days, which is mostly focused on increasing economic production. It does square with a general public and political turn against public sector interests. But water has a way of dissolving people’s normal, naive lines and categories, including “public” versus “private” and including the nature of property itself.
The concept of navigability is important to understanding riparian rights, not just because access to the navigable part of a stream is one of those rights, but also because navigability is fundamental to the question of where the public’s water rights begin to limit the riparian owner’s rights. This raises a profound issue–where exactly in the landscape does the “publicness” of water start? The importance and breadth of this question are why the concept of navigability has become so complicated. It may be the most complicated and most often misunderstood concept in N.C. (or even U.S.) water law.
It starts with the ancient idea that streams are and have always been “highways of commerce.” It evolves into several different ideas of navigability, depending on the purpose behind the question “is this stream navigable” and depending also on whether one applies federal law or state law to answer the question. Navigable by what—log raft? small boat? ocean-going vessel? Navigable when–during seasonal high flows? year-round? Navigable after or only before removal of obstacles in the channel? Navigable at time of statehood, or before (Indians in canoes) or after? Does the need to portage a particularly difficult drop defeat navigability? The different answers to all these questions have been used in different senses of “navigability” in water law.
For answering legal questions about ownership of water rights, one important sense of navigability is called “navigability for title.” This concerns ownership of the bed of a stream, not the water itself. But ownership of the stream bed is critical to one of the most important ways that humans use flowing surface water, which is to build dams and store the water. Navigability (and the choice of the right test for it) is at the heart of a case pending now in federal court, a case challenging the right of Alcoa to have dams in the Yadkin River without a clear chain of title to the river bottoms. The fact that in 2015 there are questions worth having a trial over with regard to the legality of dams built almost 100 years ago illustrates the uncertainty surrounding water law in North Carolina: many actions have been taken and investments made in the waters of the state based on custom and usage that lack a strong legal foundation. The Alcoa case is fascinating on many fronts–the briefs and arguments center on the work of historians who try to explain the river’s role in the 1790s when North Carolina became a state. Oddly, though, at this pretrial stage, the judge (guided by the parties) appears to want to apply a test of navigability based on whether boats big enough to carry substantial cargo could navigate the relevant segment of Yadkin River (a federal test), when the State test for navigability centers more on the ability to float log rafts, portaging when necessary.
The concept of navigability comes up in many and suprising ways. Different senses of navigability have been used to test the limits of the federal government’s regulatory power over water under the Federal Power Act (with an important early precedent involving a dam on the New River just north of the North Carolina/Virginia line); the extent of federal regulatory power over wetlands and ephemeral and intermittent streams (the subject of a forthcoming rule from the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that will attempt to clarify some of the murkiest issues in environmental law over the past thirty years); and, for example, to determine how far inland someone doing work in a river can be required to purchase longshoreman’s insurance.
One the questions I’ve been asked regularly through the years goes something like this: “we have a nice development featuring a lake; very, you know, high end; a gated community. But these local yahoos keep floating in on boats and fishing on our lake. Sometimes with no shirt on and beer bellies hanging out! Can we fence them out or have them arrested for trespassing?” To which the answer is: unless the lake is spring fed, it has one or more stream inlets, and if those inlets or the stream itself before being dammed were “navigable” then the lake itself is navigable, with public rights to navigate and fish there, so no, you probably can’t legally fence them out. As long as they have legal access to the stream that feeds the lake or to the lake itself (that is, they don’t have to trespass over someone’s land to get their boat into the water), your “ownership” of the lake doesn’t give you the right to exclude the public.
This is an important way in which water rights differ from rights to land or personal property: a core part of those property rights is the right to exclude other people. Economists add the idea that exclusion shouldn’t be too costly. Economists also add the useful idea of “rivalrous consumption”: for traditional private property, if the owner consumes it, it’s not available for others to consume. Surface water has both “costly exclusion” as it moves around the state, and a certain amount of non-rivalrous consumption: just because I floated my boat on that water, there’s no reduction in your ability to float on the same water (ignoring Heraclitus’ observation, “no one steps twice into the same water”). This makes flowing surface water something of a “public good” (or another finer-grained category of economic good, a “common pool resource”).
There are special considerations for reservoirs that deserve mention in a discussion of water and property. In sum, with regard to reservoirs:
- The legal test of water ownership goes back to navigability before the dam was built. If the stream is navigable, under whatever test is appropriate, the public has right to go on that water.
- The reality is that control of access to the water makes many reservoirs “de facto” privately owned
- Dam operations are a major real-world factor in water law. To understand water rights on a given stream, you need to know who owns any upstream dams, and how their operations are regulated.
Through the years, the federal government has often proclaimed that it leaves questions of water allocation to the states. In reality, though, the federal funding that is behind the construction of many of our nation’s most important dams has left federal agencies in control of the operation of the dams. Since a dam operator (for larger dams) has control over when and how much water exits the dam into the stream below, the actions of that operator and the release schedule are intimately tied up in questions of rights to water in the stream. Further, many dam owners (public and private) control the land around the reservoirs behind dams, meaning they also control who can extract water from the reservoir. This ability to exclude others is tantamount to ownership of the stored water itself. So once again, water provides a unique lens for analyzing property rights.
Property rights are often described as a “bundle of rights,” such as the right to exclude others, the right to consume the thing that is owned, the right to sell it, to subdivide it, and so forth. Water law teaches us that property ownership is better understood not just as a bundle of rights, but also as a set of responsibilities, or a web of relationships between stakeholders. There are
- riparians, upstream and downstream;
- rival users of water;
- the public, which may have the traditional rights of navigation, fishing and commerce that we call “public trust rights”;
- users of the water away from the stream itself, such as the public water systems on which most Americans depend for drinking and cleaning;
- users in general who have these conflicting needs for water purity (to drink or produce food and goods from it) and for water as a coolants, solvent and cleanser, to carry away wastes; and
- dam owners and operators.
These conflicting interests in water are balanced very differently in different places, as can be seen in the contrast between North Carolina cities that have made their streams an amenity (Wilmington, for example, with Asheville working hard on it) versus cities that are stuck with the remnants of the long era when uses along the water were just industrial (waste removal), leaving a waterfront that people mostly avoid (Fayetteville, for example).
When it comes to water disputes and the property rights involved in them, I suggest you forget the “bundle of rights” metaphor. Ask instead:
What’s the legal relationship between the stakeholders, as defined by courts, legislatures and executive branch agencies?
The essence of water law practice is giving a reliable, probabilistic answer to that question.
With water our “ownership” as riparians comes with a dose of responsibility–to downstream users and to the public generally. Where that responsibility starts is a hotly contested matter, as witness the fighting over the soon-to-emerge federal rule that again attempts to define “waters of the United States.” In part 3 of this series on water ownership, I’ll consider a major aspect of the “responsibility” side: who’s accountable when water gets out of the places where we want it and into places we don’t want it, like other people’s yards and houses?
For now, it’s time for me to return to the soothing sounds of flowing water by heading back out to the cabin porch.