In a little shot of neighbor law today, we’re going to talk about Waterworld.
No, Kevin Costner, it’s not that kind of Waterworld. Instead of a $200 million turkey, this waterworld’s a place where water is precious because there’s not that much of it, a semi-arid climate in Nebraska, a state once considered to be part of the Great American Desert but is now an agricultural powerhouse. Water’s scarce in Nebraska (and throughout the west this year), here, and water rights have been litigated ever since settlers put down their six-guns and hired the first local frontier lawyer.
In this case, a greedy downstreamer in the Lower Platte River basin had used an unnamed tributary to build his pond — his own fine little fishing pond — and he wanted his upstream neighbor to be prohibited from doing the same until his pond was full to his satisfaction. The trial court agreed with him, but the Nebraska Supreme Court found that Koch’s claim to a superior appropriative right to the water was as fictional as most of the cowboy-and-Indian stories of the old West.
As a riparian owner, Koch’s rights to the water turned out to be no better than that of his upstream neighbor.
It’s just a case about a little water, you say. What do you know? Water has been declared to be the oil of the 21st century, and it probably is. Having the right amount of water of the right degree of purity at the right place at the right time is right important. Those who have it – think of those of us in the Great Lakes watershed, for example – guard it jealously. Having some sense of how water law is applied, the world of riparian rights, is a pretty good idea.
Koch v. Aupperle, 274 Neb. 52, 737 N.W.2d 869 (Sup.Ct. Neb. 2007). The Aupperles built a small dam to create a farm pond along the banks of an unnamed tributary of Weeping Water Creek. Loren Koch, a downstream user of tributary’s waters, sued. He complained that in 1989, he dammed the waters of the tributary and built a 3-acre pond on his property next to his house. Koch alleged the Aupperle dam would prevent his pond from filling and deprive him of stream water for livestock watering.
Koch said he bought his property in 1981 and that, aside from two brief times in the past two years, he had observed a constant flow of water in the tributary. His dam, built in 1989, impounded approximately 40 to 50 acre-feet of water. In 1990, he stocked the pond with largemouth bass, bluegill, and catfish, and, by the time of trial, the pond had become “one of the best little fishing ponds around.”
Although Koch said he used his pond to water his livestock, he had no livestock from 1997 until shortly before trial. He said he intended to have a small number of cattle on his property again and that he had recently obtained seven head of cattle; he anticipated having a maximum of 45 head.
Koch admitted that he had other water sources for cattle on his property, but he testified that he preferred to use the running water from the tributary. He also used the pond for recreational boating. Koch was concerned that if the drought continued and the Aupperles were allowed to build their pond, no water would pass through to his pond and it would dry up and kill his fish. He asked the court to require a “six-inch drawdown” in the Aupperle dam so that water could be passed through the Aupperle structure until Koch’s pond was full.
Koch conceded he had no appropriative right to use the water in the tributary. He said he wanted all the water in the tributary until his pond was full. At that time, the court could authorize upstream impoundment by the Aupperles.
Koch admitted that he had other sources of water that he could use for his livestock, including several other ponds, a well, rural water spigots, and stock tanks. Paul Zillig, the assistant manager of the Lower Platte Natural Resources District, testified that based on data compiled by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the entity that designed the Aupperle farm pond, there was sufficient water in the tributary to support both ponds.
The trial court found that while both parties intended to use the water for the same purpose, Koch “has priority of appropriation due to the fact that his dam was constructed back in 1989 and has existed since that time.” On this basis, the court concluded that “Koch’s use of the water from the stream is superior to [the] Aupperles.” The district court permanently enjoined the Aupperles from constructing their farm pond “until such time as the dam structure contains a draw-down or similar device which will allow for the passage of water through the dam structure.” The Aupperles appealed.
Held: The injunction was reversed. The basic concept of riparian rights is that an owner of land abutting a water body has the right to have the water continue to flow across or stand on the land, subject to the equal rights of each owner to make proper use of the water. Riparian rights extend only to the use of the water, not to its ownership. One of the most significant maxims of riparianism is that, unlike the rule of the prior appropriation system, there is no priority among riparian proprietors utilizing the supply. All riparian proprietors have an equal and correlative right to use the waters of an abutting stream.
Of equal importance with this maxim is that use of the water does not create the riparian right and disuse neither destroys nor qualifies the right. While a riparian right will not permit any one man to monopolize all the water of a running stream when there are other riparian owners who need and may use it also, neither does it grant to any riparian owner an absolute right to insist that every drop of the water flow past his land exactly as it would in a state of nature.
Applying these principles, the Court concluded as a matter of law that Koch could not have acquired any “senior” riparian right by constructing his dam in 1989. Any riparian right he may have to use water in the tributary would be equal and correlative to the rights of other riparian proprietors. The rights of one riparian landowner versus another is determined by examining the reasonableness of each landowner’s respective use of the water.
The record in this case did not establish that either Koch or the Aupperles held riparian rights. The Court found the parties were simply owners of adjoining tracts of land through which the tributary flows, with Koch’s land situated downstream of that of the Aupperles. Koch, as the party seeking injunctive relief, had the burden to show that the proposed Aupperle dam would infringe on his rights. Because he could not demonstrate the existence of a common-law riparian right, the Court held, he clearly was not entitled to injunctive relief.
Accordingly, the Court said, it did not need to analyze the reasonableness of the use by each party of the water flowing in the tributary. If it had, it said, it noted that both parties intended to use water in the tributary “primarily for aesthetic and recreational purposes with grade stabilization, erosion control, and domestic use (watering cattle) being secondary in nature.”
– Tom Root