Brief Fact Summary. Merriweather (Plaintiff) owned a mill downstream from Evans’s (Defendant) mill. The stream, which powered both mills, was usually of sufficient flow to not cause any problems, but in 1837, a drought caused the stream to lose a considerable amount of flow. The Defendant diverted the stream, by using a dam, into Defendant’s well, causing Plaintiff’s mill to cease operation.
Synopsis of Rule of Law. A person with a stream running through their land may use all of the stream if the use is for home or livestock, but when the use is for manufacturing, the stream must have enough left for downstream proprietors.
Issue. To what extent can riparian proprietors use the water of a non-navigable stream?
Held. Defendant Evans illegally diverted the whole of the stream into his well.
The court stated the rule from an early English case regarding water courses, provides that a water course is “ex jure naturae,” and having taken a certain course naturally, cannot be diverted. The property in a stream consists not in the fluid itself but in the advantage of the flow of the stream. A riparian proprietor (one who makes a living from the stream) has an undoubted right to use the water for hydraulic or manufacturing purposes, but must do so as to do no injury to any other riparian proprietor.
The use of a stream must be a reasonable use. Although manufacturing promotes the prosperity and comfort of mankind, it cannot be considered to be essential to man’s existence.
An individual owning a spring on his land, from which water flows in a current through a neighbor’s land, would have the right to use the whole of it if necessary to supply his natural wants. This is for use in the home or for water for his livestock. However, if he desires to use the stream for manufacturing purposes he must leave enough water for the downstream proprietor.
In these cases it must be left to the jury to determine if the party complained of has used more than his share of the stream. Here, under the facts agreed to it is clear that the Defendant used more than his fair share of the stream.
Discussion. This case is important for its discussion of the principles involved in stream use cases. The reasonable use doctrine is an important method of deciding these cases. Notice that the use would have been reasonable if it was “natural,” i.e. to quench thirst, but unreasonable if “artificial,” i.e. manufacturing.