A water right is the legal right to use the physical supply of water sitting on, beneath or adjoining land. In the United States, water rights attached to the land can be a valuable asset. In the eastern region of the United Stats riparian water rights give landowners valuable access to bodies of water adjoining their lands. Western states even allow rights to water in the land to be sold separately, though riparian water rights can't be sold separate from the land.
Before you buy a property with water on it, make sure your real estate agent has researched the water rights. In the article excerpt below sfgate.com explains some of the murkier aspects of water rights.
Water Rights Ownership
In real estate, whether or not you own the right to your land's water depends on where you live. Many Western states claim ownership of the water found in and around land and use what's called “prior appropriation” to decide who owns its rights. Prior appropriation simply means that the first party using water on a piece of land has the better right to it. California, however, uses a hybrid appropriative-riparian water rights system that's applied to real estate transactions.
Real Estate Transactions
Riparian water rights allow you to use the body of water adjoining your land. If you sell your lakefront property, for instance, its riparian rights go with it. You can't sever riparian water rights from the land and either hold them after selling your land or sell the right separately. Out West, the rights to surface water or subterranean streams of water found on your land may be yours to sell with the land or they may already be owned by other parties.
Selling Water Rights
States such as California give property owners whose lands lie atop water found in underground groundwater basins a right to draw water from those basins. If you're selling land and have been drawing groundwater from it the new owner should gain that right as well. However, you may be able to sell the surface, subterranean stream and groundwater rights on your land separate from that land. Texas and several other states even give you “absolute dominion” or ownership over the groundwater beneath your land.
Understanding Water Rights
Water is a scarce resource in many parts of the country and its use and ownership is frequently tightly regulated. Knowing the usage and ownership rights to the water associated with a property is important in real estate transactions. In western states, a property's water rights can have a direct bearing on its sale or purchase. In truth, while you may own a right to use the water associated with your land you might not actually possess traditional property ownership over it.”
Go to sfgate.com to read the full article.
There are different types of water rights, and some expire if they are not exercised. Even if you buy a property with an established well, you may be restricted in how much of your property you are allowed to water. And if you think you can cheat and not be caught, then you must not have heard of satellite photography!