Prior-appropriation water rights

Prior appropriation water rights is the legal doctrine that the first person to take a quantity of water from a water source for "beneficial use" (agricultural, industrial or household) has the right to continue to use that quantity of water for that purpose.

Subsequent users can take the remaining water for their own beneficial use if they do not impinge on the rights of previous users.

The doctrine developed in the Western United States and is different from riparian water rights, which are applied in the rest of the United States. Water is very scarce in the West and so must be allocated sparingly, based on the productivity of its use. The right is also allotted to those who are "first in time of use."

Origin of the doctrine

The appropriation doctrine originated in California around the time of the Gold Rush where miners were looking for ways to increase the amount of water available for mining operations. The 1855 California Supreme Court case of Irwin v. Phillips is what brought the water appropriation problems to light. Matthew Irwin diverted a stream for his mining operation. Shortly afterward, Robert Phillips started a mining operation downstream and eventually tried to divert the water back to its original streambed. The case was taken all the way to the California Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the appropriation law.

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