WHAT ARE YOUR WATER RIGHTS?
While having discussed this issue with hundreds of people, I thought it was time to summarize some important differences between eastern and western water rights. Having lived most of my life in the western United States, I was caught off guard when I moved to Georgia and learned how this state deals with water compared to the west.
For now, the best explanation I've found comes from a paper written by David A Adams, entitled "Renewable Resource Policy:The Legal-Institutional Foundations". WESTERN WATER RIGHTS were developed based on priority of beneficial use, which allows anyone to take water as long as it is for "beneficial uses". This has developed into a "first come, first serve" structure that allows a person to take as much water as they need. On the other hand, EASTERN WATER RIGHTS were developed using the common law riparian doctrine.
Water rights are dependent on property ownership, every person whose property touches the water has equal rights to using the water. So multiple people have equal rights to a water source which prevents any one person from taking too much, they must take into account other people's need for water. The satellite image above shows the massive increase in people who are now touching the water.
"A White Paper to the Joint Comprehensive Water Plan Study Committee by the Georgia Chamber of Commerce", published in 2002 goes on to explain that water rights are property rights in the State of Georgia, protected by the Constitution, common law, and Georgia Code. Georgia citizens have purchased land, constructed facilities and engaged in farming and industry, in reliance on the legal precedent that their water rights will be protected by law. Current and future land investments, and investment for agricultural, municipal and industrial purposes depend upon the ability of these land owners to utilize water.
The status of water rights as property rights in Georgia however, should not alarm those concerned with protection of the public interest. It is a tenet of Riparian common law and Georgia law that private use may not unreasonably interfere with Riparian uses. The State may exercise its police powers, as it does with regard to many other private activities, in order to protect the public interest.
Georgia EPD is authorized, under the State's police powers, to regulate private and public use of surface and ground waters. For example, the regulation of state buffers on an individuals private property is within the states legal responsibility to police, but does not take away the ownership of water from Riparian landowners. The common law as developed in the courts remains intact. Georgia is thus known as a "Regulated Riparian" state, meaning that the State's power to regulate uses of the waterways does not come from any ownership of the waters by the State itself. Therefore, methods used by the State regulate to regulate dischargers of water and other users of the waterways, must be based upon addressing a need to protect the health, safety or welfare of the citizens of Georgia.