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From the very earliest European settlement of the North American Continent, water rights and ownership have been an ongoing issue. Ownership of real property did not always automatically confer rights to water either adjacent to or flowing through the property. Water law dates back into Roman times and even further into antiquity. Present court litigation over water rights often involves extensive investigations into the oldest verifiable uses of the water. In all of this, the investigation of water rights and research into ownership can be a productive way to provide genealogical information. Where allowed by law, water rights could be bought and sold just as any other property right. In addition, water rights could be inherited.
In most geographic areas, water rights were registered through a system of water shares or deeds. Sometimes these rights were included with the sale of real property, in other areas they were transferred separately from real estate transfers and controlled by some specially created commission or agency.
Even in the ancient Roman Empire, property owners who were adjacent to water were acknowledged to have an interest called a riparian water right. This principle influenced water rights in most of the European countries. These riparian rights were appurtenant to the property, this means that they could not be sold or transferred separate from the property. There is a distinction made between navigable and non-navigable waterways. The system of riparian rights was adopted by most of the Eastern states but in the Western states another system of allocating water rights developed called the right of prior appropriation or in other words, first in time, first in right.
Importance of Water Records
Finding Water Records
Major legal cases in American water law
- Arizona v. California (Colorado River)
- Gila River and Little Colorado River General Stream Adjudications
- Colorado River Water Conservation Dist. v. United States
- Significant cases in Washington State
- Sun Belt Water Inc. v. Canada NAFTA Arbitation pending
- Winters vs. United States
- Wyoming v. Colorado (Laramie River)
- Tri-state water dispute (Georgia, Alabama, Florida)
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