This week we bring you a post from our colleague Richard Whisnant from his new blog: Environmental Law in Context.
This is the way the question often comes to me–who owns it?–as a way of asking either who controls water in NC (for beneficial purposes) or who is responsible for it when it does harm (e.g., flooding). Framing the question this way is an unsurprising reflection of the importance of property rights in American law. And property rights do matter for water law. But water, the great solvent, has a way of dissolving preconceptions about ownership of property and forcing anyone who really cares to reexamine their understanding of ownership itself. Things, like water, that are always moving, often in mysterious ways, and that are so vital to us that we can’t imagine life without them, just don’t fit well in simple definitions of “property.” To make matters especially complicated for water, the law has come to treat its ownership very differently as it moves through the eternal cycle in which it always moves: from ocean to sky, back to earth as rain (“stormwater”) or snow, then either infiltrating into the ground (groundwater) or into streams and lakes (surface water), and then passing through myriad human channels, including our own bodies, on its way back to the sea. In this post, I will outline the way NC law treats ownership of groundwater–probably our biggest and ultimately most important store of freshwater.