Q&A with Dean Couch
Controlling water use imperative to economic health
Q: As the former general counsel for the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, you're more than aware of water rights. Why are they important?
A: Somewhat like a written deed filed with a county clerk that shows legal ownership of property, a water right is usually understood to be legal authorization to use water that is filed with the Oklahoma Water Resources Board (OWRB). The written authorization can be in the form of a permit to use surface water or groundwater, a vested right to use surface water or a prior right to use groundwater. As the demand for water increases, valid water rights are extremely important to determine the authorized use of this valuable resource.
Q: Who owns the water in streams, lakes and ponds in Oklahoma?
A: The answer is no one and everyone. The actual molecules of water in streams, lakes and ponds is said to be part of nature, like deer on the land and birds in the air, and owned by no one or “owned” by the public in general. The U.S. Supreme Court recognized that this principle of non-ownership or public ownership was first established as an ancient Roman law. This is part of the reason that a water right is said to be right of use only, and not a right of actual ownership of the water. The public ownership aspect of water supports the notion that the state government, on behalf of the public, can regulate water use through permit systems such as the water rights system administered by the OWRB.
Q: Does that same principle of non-ownership of water apply to groundwater that is under the surface of the land in Oklahoma?