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A brief look at Georgia water surface rights

Previously, we mentioned the favorable decision recently reached in the water dispute between Georgia and Florida concerning the use of water from the Apalachicola-Cattahoochee-Flint River Basin. As we noted last time, one of the challenges involved in the interstate water wars is that fundamental property rights are at stake.

The general rule of water use law in Georgia, if there could be said to be one, is the riparian rights doctrine. Under this doctrine, property owners are entitled to surface water which flows naturally across or by their land, and may make reasonable use of the water for domestic, manufacturing or agricultural purposes. Unreasonable use would be when the landowner uses the water in such a way as to harm other riparian owners, particularly those downstream. 

Use of surface water in such a way as to restrict water use downstream can be unreasonable under some circumstances. In addition, a property owner whose land is not adjacent to a body of water may have the right to use the water, but such a landowner’s rights are typically seen as inferior to the rights of a riparian landowner.

On top of the riparian rights doctrine, the state of Georgia imposes additional requirements on the use of surface water. In some cases, water use requires a permit. For example, a landowner who wants to use more than a set limit of water must have a permit from the state. The state also regulates the use of water when there are competing users and during water shortages. These additional requirements on water use have been partially influenced by increasing water shortages.

Non-riparian owners, such as those who own land which is not adjacent to surface water, may obtain the rights to water from a riparian landowner, and it is possible for water from riparian land to be used on non-riparian land. Sorting out water rights in such situations can become complicated, and it is important to work with an experienced attorney when disputes arise. 

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