A Guide to Water Laws in Texas

A Guide to Water Laws in Texas

Water is our most precious resource, it can significantly impact the ecological composition and the overall value of Texas land. For landowners and ranchers in Texas, understanding the intricate web of laws and regulations is crucial to effectively managing water rights, usage, and conservation. This guide examines the water laws in Texas. It provides landowners and ranchers with the necessary knowledge to comprehend and navigate the intricate water laws in the state of Texas.

Texas Water Rights

Texas is a land sculpted by water. Springs and creeks sprout up from the aquifers and merge with rivers like the Colorado, the Brazos, and the mighty Rio Grande. The rivers then carve through the landscape, ultimately feeding into the Gulf of Mexico.

Water owned by the state of Texas is managed by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). Water rights can be obtained through permits, authorizations, or certificates, depending on the type of water source and the purpose of use. The TCEQ plays a central role in the allocation and regulation of water rights, and understanding the application and permitting processes is vital for landowners and ranchers.

Texas follows the doctrine of "prior appropriation," which means that the first person to lawfully  use the water has the right to continue using it, subject to certain limitations. It is more beneficial to own “senior water rights” for in times of shortage or drought, those with the oldest standing permits will receive the water they are entitled to before any “junior water rights” holders. 

Groundwater Rights

Groundwater is a critical resource for landowners and ranchers, particularly in areas where surface water is scarce. It is typically captured and brought to the surface by water wells and then utilized for domestic, livestock, or wildlife use. While landowners generally have ownership rights to the groundwater beneath their property, Texas applies the "right of capture" doctrine. This rule allows landowners to capture and use as much groundwater as they can reasonably produce from their land, irrespective of the impact on neighbors or the aquifer.

However, due to concerns over aquifer depletion and potential conflicts among users, many areas in Texas have established groundwater conservation districts (GCDs). These GCDs are tasked with regulating groundwater usage and setting sustainable pumping limits to ensure the long-term viability of the resource. It is crucial for landowners and ranchers to be aware of any GCD rules and requirements that apply to their properties.

Surface Water Rights

Surface water, including rivers, lakes, and streams, is owned by the state and governed by a permitting system administered by the TCEQ. Landowners and ranchers seeking to use surface water for irrigation, livestock, or other purposes must obtain a water right permit or authorization from the TCEQ. The permit will specify the allowable quantity and purpose of water use, along with any associated fees or reporting obligations.

To secure a surface water right, applicants must navigate a comprehensive process that involves demonstrating the intended use's beneficial nature, ensuring compliance with environmental regulations, and participating in public notice and comment periods. Familiarizing oneself with the TCEQ's permitting requirements and procedures is essential for landowners and ranchers seeking to utilize surface water resources.

Stock Tank Exemption

Because of the numerous benefits surface water can bring to a property, the state of Texas encourages the private development of ponds and lakes through the “stock tank exemption.” This exception allows landowners to be exempt from the TCEQ surface water permitting process and authorizes the construction of a dam, pond or reservoir backing up no more than 200 acre feet of water on the landowner’s property. So long as the intended use of the captured water is for domestic, livestock, fish or wildlife purposes.

1 acre feet of water is equal to 1 surface acre of water that is 1 foot deep.  Therefore, a pond that is 20 acres on the surface and is on average 10 feet deep will hold approximately 200 acre feet of water. This is the maximum allowed without obtaining a permit from the state.

The stock tank exemption has allowed thousands of farmers and ranchers to dam up creeks, perennial streams, and watersheds to not only increase the value of their land but provide additional surface access to our state's most important resource. 

Riparian & Littoral Rights

If your property adjoins a river, stream, or other watercourse, you may possess riparian rights. Riparian rights grant landowners the right to use a reasonable amount of surface water adjacent to their property for various domestic and livestock purposes. However, these rights are subject to the concept of "reasonable use," which implies that your water use should not unduly interfere with other riparian users' rights or cause harm to the water source.

Littoral rights pertain to a piece of property located next to a still body of surface water like a lake or pond. These landowners own to the middle of the waterway and have the right to construct improvements like a dock. It is crucial to understand the extent and limitations of riparian and littoral rights, as well as any local rules or regulations that may apply. Cooperation and communication with neighboring riparian or littoral users are often key to preventing conflicts and ensuring the equitable sharing of water resources.

Navigable & Non Navigable Water 

Being able to distinguish between a navigable vs. non-navigable body of water is another important aspect of water rights for landowners. This will help them understand their ownership relative to the body of water as well as their limitations. A navigable body of water is either “navigable in fact” or “navigable by statute.” Along a navigable watercourse, the public has access to enjoy it for recreational means. However, the public’s access is usually confined to the stream bed.

An example of a navigable body of water in Texas is the Pedernales River. Landowners have private ownership of their land adjacent to the river and may possess riparian rights to the surface water. The public can only access the river through lawful means (through public parks or permission from landowners) and may not trespass on any property while performing recreational activities. 

Along a non-navigable watercourse, the public typically has no right of use and landowners may forbid entry and use of the waterway. An example of this would be a stream that is not navigable in fact or by statute. In this case a landowner can benefit from the stock tank exemption and dam or back up the water for domestic, livestock or wildlife use so long as it does not exceed the 200 acre feet requirement. 

Water Conservation and Drought Management

Water conservation is both a moral imperative and a legal responsibility in Texas. The state has implemented several measures to encourage water conservation and mitigate the impacts of drought conditions. These measures may include mandatory water use restrictions, voluntary conservation programs, drought contingency plans, and incentives for implementing efficient irrigation systems and water-saving practices.

Landowners and ranchers are encouraged to adopt best management practices to minimize water wastage, such as utilizing precision irrigation techniques, implementing soil moisture monitoring systems, and employing drought-tolerant crop varieties. By actively participating in water conservation efforts, landowners and ranchers contribute to the overall sustainability and resilience of Texas' water resources.


Navigating the intricate water laws of Texas requires a comprehensive understanding of water rights, groundwater and surface water regulations, and water conservation measures. By familiarizing themselves with these laws and regulations, landowners and ranchers can effectively manage their water resources, ensure compliance with legal requirements, and contribute to the responsible and sustainable use of water in Texas.

It is essential to keep in mind that water laws and regulations can vary depending on the specific location, hydrological conditions, and local authorities. Seeking professional guidance from legal experts or local water authorities can provide additional clarity and ensure compliance with the ever-evolving water landscape in Texas. 

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