Drinking from a Deep Well: The Public Trust Doctrine and Western Water Law

49 Pages Posted: 30 Mar 2006

See all articles by Carol Necole Brown

Carol Necole Brown

University of Richmond School of Law


American water law reflects the diverse geography and population patterns of our country. The arid western states provide fertile ground to consider the burdens of a rapidly growing region on scarce water resources. This Article's thesis is that the public trust doctrine is being underutilized by those western states to address their water scarcity dilemma. I recommend extending the geographical scope of the public trust doctrine to encompass all bodies of water that serve the public welfare, even minimally.

In the Article, I compare an expanded public trust doctrine against a more aggressive application of the prior appropriation doctrine. I discuss why the prior appropriation doctrine and its commodification of water rights is a lesser alternative to rethinking the public trust doctrine. Additionally, I discuss the problem of vested rights and takings challenges that may arise in the wake of an expanded public trust concept. I use the recent United States Supreme Court case Kelo v. Town of New London to illustrate the similarities between the Court's "traditionally broad understanding of public purpose" in the context of takings jurisprudence and the historically dynamic nature of the public trust doctrine. My Article explores the proper role of the public trust doctrine in responding to historic mistakes in this country's approach to water use and conservation in the arid west.

Keywords: water, public trust doctrine, prior appropriation, riparian, property

Suggested Citation

Brown, Carol Necole, Drinking from a Deep Well: The Public Trust Doctrine and Western Water Law. U of Alabama Public Law Research Paper No. 894088, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=894088 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.894088

Carol Necole Brown (Contact Author)

University of Richmond School of Law ( email )

28 Westhampton Way
Richmond, VA 23173
United States
804-484-1626 (Phone)
804-289-8992 (Fax)

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