Defining Riparian Rights as 'Property' Through Takings Litigation: Is There a Property Right to Environmental Quality?

41 Pages Posted: 26 Aug 2011 Last revised: 5 May 2014

Date Written: May 15, 2012


The U.S. Constitution’s prohibitions on governments taking private property without compensation have always operated most clearly in the context of real property. In contrast, arguments that these takings restrictions should apply to water and water rights throw courts for a loop. A fundamental problem for takings decisions in the water rights context is the fact that both the status of water rights as property and the defining elements of any property rights that exist are contested.

This Article argues that takings litigation can become a productive occasion for defining the status and nature of water rights, especially, increasingly, in the riparianism context. It first provides a quick review of basic takings jurisprudence, emphasizing how the constitutional prohibitions on government takings apply to property use rights, such as easements. It then examines the potential for takings litigation to help define the nature of water rights in general, focusing on relatively recent litigation involving water rights connected with cattle grazing. The Article ends by discussing a series of cases involving riparian water rights and claims that those rights entitle the owners to certain basic environmental quality standards, especially with respect to water quality. It concludes that takings jurisprudence in the riparian rights context may yet align private property rights and environmental protection, providing a more focused - and potentially more predictable/less balancing - private cause of action than nuisance for certain kinds of environmental degradation.

Keywords: water law, water rights, prior appropriation, grazing, riparian, water quality, takings, physical takings, regulatory takings

Suggested Citation

Craig, Robin Kundis, Defining Riparian Rights as 'Property' Through Takings Litigation: Is There a Property Right to Environmental Quality? (May 15, 2012). Environmental Law, Vol. 42:1 (Winter 2012), at 115-155, FSU College of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 547, Available at SSRN:

Robin Kundis Craig (Contact Author)

University of Kansas ( email )

School of Law
1535 W. 15th St.
Lawrence, KS 66045
United States

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