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The Evolving Contours of Water Law in the United States: Bridging the Gap between Water Rights, Land Use and the Protection of the Aquatic Environment

William L. Andreen

University of Alabama - School of Law

Environmental Planning and Law Journal, Vol. 23, 2006
U of Alabama Public Law Research Paper No. 08-06

Although Australia and the United States share a common law heritage, water law has developed in significantly different patterns in the two nations. Much of the credit for Australia's different course can be ascribed to Alfred Deakin, who after taking a study tour of the American West in 1885, wrote a report that rejected the doctrine of prior appropriation as used in the arid states of the American West and advocated a system in which the rights of the state were elevated over those of the individual.

Unfortunately, both countries have generally treated water, just like land and other natural resources, as a commodity for human use, manipulation, and degradation. Little thought or significance, at least until relatively recently, was attached to the adverse environmental impact of reduced stream flows and the severe damage caused by hydrologic modifications such as dams and by various development activities that disrupt and pollute aquatic habitats. Both countries, therefore, face the difficult challenge of trying at a late date to bring together two separate, but inextricably connected, disciplines, one focusing on water use and the other on water quality. The challenge is daunting, especially in light of both existing uses of water "giving rise to settled expectations in Australia and often confirmed as a matter of right in the United States" and anticipated growth in demand.

Complicating the situation in the United States is its fragmented approach to law and regulation dealing with watershed issues. Water quantity law is state-driven, while water pollution law is primarily federal in origin, with the notable exception of non-point source pollution, which is primarily the responsibility of state government. Land use management, on the other hand, is generally a question for local government.

After exploring the three separate regimes governing water use, water quality and land use, the article discusses and evaluates a number of approaches for trying to integrate these regulatory schemes into a mechanism that can enhance and protect the integrity of our aquatic systems while also meeting many human needs in a sustainable and adaptive way. Perhaps the most important aspect of this analysis lies in its attempt to connect, in terms of law and institutions, the natural and symbiotic relationship between land use and water. Although that relationship has long been ignored, it is essential to conceive of a river or other freshwater system as part of a larger interdependent ecosystem, one linking all land and aquatic features in a particular watershed.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 18

Keywords: enviornmental law, water pollution, water law, land use, watershed management, endangered species, clean water act, land use management

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Date posted: March 22, 2006  

Suggested Citation

Andreen, William L., The Evolving Contours of Water Law in the United States: Bridging the Gap between Water Rights, Land Use and the Protection of the Aquatic Environment. Environmental Planning and Law Journal, Vol. 23, 2006; U of Alabama Public Law Research Paper No. 08-06. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=889744

Contact Information

William L. Andreen (Contact Author)
University of Alabama - School of Law ( email )
P.O. Box 870382
Tuscaloosa, AL 35487
United States

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