Water Grand Challenges: Surface Water Rights in Texas




Warren, Emily

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Water law has changed multiple times over the years since Texas became a state, which has led to numerous conflicts between the competing legal systems and approaches across the United States. Two legal doctrines of surface water law are recognized in Texas today, the riparian doctrine and the prior appropriation doctrine. The riparian doctrine is based on English common law and ties the rights to use surface water to land ownership. Riparian owners may use the water as long as they own the land adjacent to the water. The prior appropriation doctrine is controlled by statue and is more often recognized in the western states. In this doctrine, surface water use is not tied to land ownership, but can only be used by complying with statutory requirements. The Texas Legislature merged the riparian rights into the prior appropriation doctrine in 1967 with the passage of the Water Rights Adjudication Act. This required anyone seeking riparian ownership of surface water to apply for it before 1969 or it would be converted to prior appropriation. This consolidation requires permission from the state to utilize surface water even on your own property in the form of a water right. These rights are given out in the form of permits and are reviewed by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). The state owns all surface water, including every river, natural stream, lake, bay, and the arm of the Gulf of Mexico.



water quality, conservation, water rights, surface water, groundwater


Warren, E. (2013). Water grand challenges: Surface water rights in Texas (Report No. 2013-32). Texas State University-San Marcos, San Marcos, Texas.


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