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Does Eminent Domain Apply to Water Rights?

Posted on: February 7th, 2016
by David Ganje

Does Eminent Domain Apply to Water Rights?

Eminent domain is one of the toughest and most controversial legal powers available to a government. The doctrine of eminent domain allows a governmental body to convert privately owned land to another use, often over the objections of the current landowner. This process is commonly known as ‘condemning the land.’ There are rules, of course. A private landowner must be paid “just compensation” for the condemnation of their land. I have written several blog articles regarding the matter of just compensation. Further, the land that is to be taken must be taken to further a beneficial public use.

The ability to exercise eminent domain is so powerful that it almost always remains a final legal option left to state and government bodies. In North Dakota, a little-known law allows private citizens to exercise eminent domain. North Dakota law states that “The United States, or any person, corporation, limited liability company, or association [may] exercise the right of eminent domain to acquire for a public use any property or rights existing when found necessary for the application of water to beneficial uses.” Private citizens as well as corporations may exercise the immense power of eminent domain – but only when it comes to using water for a beneficial use.

North Dakota evaluates whether or not a citizen is able to put water to a beneficial use through a permit system. The law requires “any person, before…appropriating waters of the state…, shall first secure a water permit from the state engineer.” There are few sources of water (groundwater, surface water, river water, etc.) within the limits of the state that are not subject to such a water permit. The power of eminent domain can only be harnessed in order to put water to a beneficial use. For this reason, a citizen cannot successfully exercise eminent domain without first having a water permit.

The right of eminent domain may come into play when a private citizen or corporation wants to use water for a beneficial use, but needs access to land they don’t own in order to access water. What is a beneficial use? North Dakota law is intentionally vague on this subject. It says beneficial use is the use of water for “a purpose consistent with the best interest of the people of the state.”

Traditionally the landowner who desires the use of a water source, having first secured a state permit, will negotiate an easement with the landowner who owns the land on which the water sits. But this does not always work out. Such was the case in Mougey Farms v. Kaspari, a 1998 North Dakota Supreme Court case. The plaintiff, Mougey, owned farmland neighboring the defendant Kaspari’s land. Kaspari’s land also bordered the Sheyenne River. Mougey wanted to use the Sheyenne River as a water supply to irrigate his land. To that purpose Mougey approached Kaspari to negotiate a lease of his land in order to build a water transport system connecting Mougey’s irrigation system to the Sheyenne River. Kaspari agreed, the two signed a lease, and the irrigation system was built across Kaspari’s land without incident. The lease began in 1979 and continued for almost seventeen years.

In 1996 Kaspari informed Mougey that the lease would not be renewed, and Mougey would no longer be allowed to transport water from the Sheyenne River to Mougey’s farmland. This left Mougey without a source of water for irrigation. Mougey brought suit with an eminent domain claim against Kaspari’s land – in other words, he brought a suit to condemn the part of Kaspari’s land on which the water pipeline stood, asking for the right to continue piping water from the river to his irrigation system. Though this argument was rejected in the lower court, the North Dakota Supreme Court held that “irrigation of farmland under a perfected water permit issued by the State Engineer is a beneficial use of water consistent with the best interests of the people of North Dakota, which we conclude satisfies the ‘public use’ requirement.” The Supreme Court of North Dakota held that a private citizen could exercise the power of eminent domain in order to condemn part of his neighbor’s land, so long as the condemnation was in support of an approved public use of water.

The law lays out what public uses trigger the right of eminent domain. It states, “oil, gas, coal, and carbon dioxide pipelines and works” and the plants for supplying the above, together with “lands, buildings, and all other improvements” needed to for the purpose of “generating, refining, regulating, compressing, transmitting, or…development and control” are all public uses capable of triggering eminent domain.

The question is whether or not use of water fits a category. Is the use one that supports “generating, refining, regulating, compressing, transmitting,” or “development and control” of oil and/or natural gas? This issue may be considered regarding one of the most important uses of water in the oil and gas industry, hydraulic fracturing. There are parallels that can be drawn between the use of water for irrigation seen in Mougey Farms and the use of water for hydraulic fracturing.

Energy developers and landowners should be aware of this eminent domain statute and the possibility of its use. Both parties need to remember that when water rights are involved in a public use, the prospect of eminent domain is conceivable. The North Dakota Supreme Court teaches us that the ‘eminent domain of water statute’ allows individuals or companies to acquire for public use property when found necessary for using water for beneficial purposes.

David Ganje. David Ganje of Ganje Law Offices practices in the area of natural resources, environmental and commercial law in South Dakota and North Dakota. The website is Lexenergy.net