Water Law

Water Law deals with the ownership, control, and use of water as a resource. It is a major concern in some parts of the world where a growing population faces increasing competition over a limited natural supply. Long-term issues in water law include the possible effects of global warming on rainfall patterns and evaporation; the availability and cost of desalination technology; the control of pollution, and the growth of aquaculture. 

In the United States there are multipart legal systems for assigning water rights that vary by region. These varying systems exist for both historical and geographic reasons. Water law covers a wide array of subjects or categories designed to provide a framework to resolve disputes and policy issues relating to water including:

Public waters (including tidal waters and navigable waterways),

Other surface waters (generally water that flows across non-public land from rain),

Floodwaters and snowmelt before those waters reach public watercourses,

Groundwater (sometimes called subterranean, percolating, or underground water),

Public regulation of waters (including flood control, state and federal environmental regulation, public health regulation, and regulation of fisheries),

Interplay of public and private rights in water, which draws on aspects of eminent domain law and the federal commerce clause powers.

These concerns are influenced by laws from many other areas of American jurisprudence. Some derive from common law principles which have compounded over centuries, and which evolve as the nature of disputes presented to courts change. Some are pulled from state statutory law. Others are derived from the original public grants of land to the states and from the documents of their origination. Some are derived from state, federal, and local regulation of waters through zoning, public health, and other regulations. It is important to note that non-federally recognized Indian tribes do not have water rights.

If you have questions about water laws, please review the materials below. Moreover, you can get legal help with your case by visiting our Law Firms page and finding an attorney in your area specialized in this field.

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Water Law - United States

  • ABA - Water Quality and Wetlands (WQ&W) Committee

    he Water Quality and Wetlands (WQ&W) Committee keeps up to date on issues involving the Clean Water Act and other laws related to water pollution and wetlands, as well as relevant regulations, policies and legal decisions.

  • Advisory Committee on Water Information

    Purpose is to improve water information for decision making about natural resources management and environmental protection. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Memorandum No. 92-01 designates the Department of the Interior, through the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), as the lead agency. Other Federal organizations that fund, collect, or use water resources information work together with the USGS to implement program recommendations.

  • America's Wetlands

    This site will give you a better understanding of the rich variety of wetlands, their importance, how they are threatened, and what can be done to conserve them for future generations.

  • California Department of Water Resources

    Mission - To manage the water resources of California in cooperation with other agencies, to benefit the State's people, and to protect, restore, and enhance the natural and human environments.

  • Clean Water Act

    The Clean Water Act (CWA) is the cornerstone of surface water quality protection in the United States. (The Act does not deal directly with ground water nor with water quantity issues.) The statute employs a variety of regulatory and nonregulatory tools to sharply reduce direct pollutant discharges into waterways, finance municipal wastewater treatment facilities, and manage polluted runoff.

  • Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)

    The primary mission of the Federal Emergency Management Agency is to reduce the loss of life and property and protect the Nation from all hazards, including natural disasters, acts of terrorism, and other man-made disasters, by leading and supporting the Nation in a risk-based, comprehensive emergency management system of preparedness, protection, response, recovery, and mitigation.

  • National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS)

    The National Drought Policy Commission was established under the National Drought Policy Act of 1998 to ensure collaboration between different government agencies on drought-related issues.

  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

    NOAA is an agency that enriches life through science. Our reach goes from the surface of the sun to the depths of the ocean floor as we work to keep citizens informed of the changing environment around them.

  • Safe Drinking Water Act

    The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) is the main federal law that ensures the quality of Americans' drinking water. Under SDWA, EPA sets standards for drinking water quality and oversees the states, localities, and water suppliers who implement those standards.

  • The Cooperative Water Program

    As the primary Federal science agency for water-resource information, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) monitors the quantity and quality of water in the Nation's rivers and aquifers, assesses the sources and fate of contaminants in aquatic systems, develops tools to improve the application of hydrologic information, and ensures that its information and tools are available to all potential users.

  • US Environmental Protection Agency - Office of Water

    With the help of States, Tribes and other partners, EPA expects to make progress toward protecting human health and improving water quality by 2011 on the following: Water Safe to Drink; Fish and Shellfish Safe to Eat; Water Safe for Swimming; Healthy Watersheds; Healthy Coastal Waters; More Wetlands

  • US Water Monitor

    A Portal To Federal Water Information.

  • Water Resources of the United States

    The USGS mission is to provide water information that benefits the Nation's citizens: Publications, data, maps, and applications software. USGS Water-Resources offices are located in every State.

Water Law - International

  • African Water Issues Research Unit

    The African Water Issues Research Unit (AWIRU) is a not-for-profit applied research organisation based at the University of Pretoria, established to develop an African capacity to understand the complexity of African water management and development issues. AWIRU's objective is to generate water management solutions that are politically, socially, economically, environmentally and culturally sustainable in Africa.

  • Executive Action Team (EXACT)

    Multilateral working groups to advance the Middle East Peace Process were formed in January 1992. One of these groups, the Multilateral Working Group on Water Resources, endorsed the Water Data Banks Project in November 1994. The Water Data Banks Project consists of a series of specific actions to be taken by the Israelis, Jordanians, and Palestinians that are designed to foster the adoption of common, standardized data collection and storage techniques among the Parties, improve the quality of the water resources data collected in the region, and to improve communication among the scientific community in the region.

  • Global Water

    GLOBAL WATER was founded in 1982 by former U.S. Ambassador John McDonald and Dr. Peter Bourne to help save the lives of people in developing countries that are lost due to unclean water.

  • InterAmerican Water Resources Network (IWRN)

    The IWRN is a network of networks whose purpose is to build and strengthen water resources partnerships among nations, organizations, and individuals; to promote education and the open exchange of information and technical expertise; and to enhance communication, cooperation, collaboration and financial commitment to integrated water and land resources management within the context of environmental and economic sustainability in the Americas.

  • International Boundary and Water Commission (USIBWC)

    Our mission is to provide binational solutions to issues that arise during the application of United States - Mexico treaties regarding boundary demarcation, national ownership of waters, sanitation, water quality, and flood control in the border region.

  • International Rivers Network

    Mission: To protect rivers and defend the rights of communities that depend on them. We oppose destructive dams and the development model they advance, and encourage better ways of meeting people’s needs for water, energy and protection from damaging floods.

  • International Water Law Project

    The mission of the International Water Law Project (IWLP) is to serve as the premier resource on the Internet for international water law and policy issues. Its purpose is to educate and provide relevant resources to the public and to facilitate cooperation over the world’s fresh water resources.

  • International Waters Learning Exchange and Resource Network

    IW:LEARN aims to strengthen International Waters Management (IWM) by facilitating structured learning and information sharing among stakeholders. In pursuit of this global objective, IW:LEARN improves GEF IW projects’ information base, replication efficiency, transparency, stakeholder ownership and sustainability of benefits.

  • Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI)

    The Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) is a policy institute whose diverse Stockholm-based, internationally-oriented programmes and activities contribute to finding sustainable solutions to the world’s escalating water crisis.

  • The Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC)

    The Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC) is an international organization created by Canada, Mexico and the United States under the North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation (NAAEC). The CEC was established to address regional environmental concerns, help prevent potential trade and environmental conflicts, and to promote the effective enforcement of environmental law.

  • The World Commission on Dams

    The WCD was an independent, international, multi-stakeholder process which addressed the controversial issues associated with large dams.

  • UNEP - United Nations Environment Programme

    The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) was established by the UN General Assembly in 1972. Its mission is "to provide leadership and encourage partnership in caring for the environment by inspiring, informing and enabling nations and peoples to improve their quality of life without compromising that of the future generations."

  • United Nations Environmental Program Freshwater Portal

    Since its establishment, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has worked to promote sustainable water resources management practices through collaborative approaches at the national, regional and global levels. After more than 30 years, water resources management continues as a strong pillar of UNEP’s work.

  • United Nations Secretariat of the Convention to Combat Desertification

    The international community has long recognized that desertification is a major economic, social and environmental problem of concern to many countries in all regions of the world.

  • WaterSense

    Launched in 2006, WaterSense is an EPA-sponsored partnership program that seeks to protect the future of our nation's water supply by promoting water efficiency and enhancing the market for water-efficient products, programs, and practices.

  • World Water Council

    Its mission is to promote awareness, build political commitment and trigger action on critical water issues at all levels, including the highest decision-making level, to facilitate the efficient management and use of water in all its dimensions and on an environmentally sustainable basis. The WWC has been granted special consultative status by UNESCO and ECOSOC.

Water Law - Treaties


    The ECOLEX database includes information on treaties, international soft-law and other non-binding policy and technical guidance documents, national legislation, judicial decisions, and law and policy literature. Users have direct access to the abstracts and indexing information about each document, as well as to the full text of most of the information provided.

  • Environmental Treaties and Resource Indicators (ENTRI)

    Welcome to ENTRI, a fast, convenient, comprehensive online service for accessing multilateral environmental treaty data. Find status data for environmental treaties, treaty text and other related information easily. Construct custom tables by selecting countries and treaties of interest to you.

  • FAO Water Development and Management Unit (NRLW)

    The Water Development and Management Unit (NRLW) is engaged in a programmatic approach to agricultural water management addressing water use efficiency and productivity, and best practices for water use and conservation, throughout the continuum from water sources to final uses.

  • International Water Management Institute (IWMI)

    IWMI is one of 15 international research centers supported by the network of 60 governments, private foundations and international and regional organizations collectively known as the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

  • Legal Office Water Treaties

    International agreements on international water sources database

Organizations Related to Water Law

  • European Water Association (EWA)

    The European Water Association (EWA) is an independent non-governmental and non-profit making organisation dealing with the management and improvement of the water environment. It was founded on 22 June 1981 as the European Water Pollution Control Association. The scope of the Association was enlarged in 1999 with the change of name to the European Water Association.

  • International Association of Hydrogeologists (IAH)

    IAH is an international organisation for scientists, engineers and other professionals working in the fields of groundwater resource planning, management and protection. It was founded in 1956 and has grown, with the increasing social and environmental importance of groundwater, to a membership of more than 3500 members in more than 135 countries.

  • International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)

    IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, helps the world find pragmatic solutions to our most pressing environment and development challenges. It supports scientific research, manages field projects all over the world and brings governments, non-government organizations, United Nations agencies, companies and local communities together to develop and implement policy, laws and best practice.

  • National Environmental, Safety and Health Training Association

    NESHTA is a non-profit educational society for environmental, safety, health and other technical training and adult education professionals.

  • National Rural Water Association

    The National Rural Water Association is a non-profit federation of State Rural Water Associations. Their mission is to provide support services to our State Associations who have more than 26, water and wastewater systems as members.

  • Water Environment Federation

    The Water Environment Federation is the not-for-profit association that provides technical education and training for the world’s water quality professionals and also supports like-minded organizations such at Water for People and Engineers Without Borders.

  • WaterAid

    WaterAid's vision is of a world where everyone has access to safe water and sanitation. WaterAid transforms lives by improving access to safe water, hygiene and sanitation in the world's poorest communities. We work with partners and influence decision-makers to maximize our impact.

Water Law - Publications

  • International Journal of Water Resources Development

    International Journal of Water Resources Development covers all aspects of water development and management in both industrialized and Third World countries. Contents focus on the practical implementation of policies for water resources development, monitoring and evaluation of technical projects, and, to a lesser extent, water resources research. Articles are rigorous and in-depth, and range in approach from applied geographical analysis to the examination of strategic, economic and social issues.

  • International Journal on Hydropower & Dams

    The International Journal on Hydropower & Dams is a bi-monthly publication, dealing with all technical, environmental, social and economic aspects of hydro plants and multipurpose water resources development projects.

  • National Water Rights Digest
  • The Water Report

    A monthly newsletter for Water Lawyers, Engineers, Regulatory Agencies, Tribes, Municipalities, Environmental Organizations and anyone interested in water in the western United States.

  • The World's Water

    Water is one of our most critical resources, but around the world it is under threat. Worldwater.org is dedicated to providing information and resources to help protect and preserve fresh water around the globe.

  • US Water News

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