Water Resources Program fact sheet
Missouri Geological Survey Director: Carey Bridges, RG

How much surface water or groundwater can I take?

There are no state laws, regulations or policies that specify the quantity of water that any diverter may use. Missouri is a riparian water law state, and all landowners touching or lying above water sources have a right to a reasonable use of those water resources. Recent case law has established the reasonable use criteria that the State Supreme Court has been following. Reasonable use requires other users and landowners not be overly adversely impacted. In 2000, the Department of Natural Resources published A Summary of Missouri Water Laws to provide more information. To purchase a copy, call 573-368-2175, or visit our Document Search.

Why does Missouri not have a state water allocation?

Two reasons

  1. Because Missouri became a state in 1821.
  2. Except for times of drought, water typically isn't a scarce resource.

In the early 1800s all states followed riparian water law doctrine. In Missouri, riparian water use and quantity laws were and are, with a few exceptions, case laws enforced by the judicial system. Historically, Missouri's water supplies have been able to meet the quantity demands placed on them. The doctrine of prior appropriation, also known as the "Colorado Doctrine," is the statutorily enforced state allocation of water resources where demand exceeds supply. The legal doctrine of prior appropriation did not evolve for another 50 years after Missouri's statehood – in the 1870s and 80s.

In Missouri and most other eastern states, water conflicts historically centered around the protection of private property from too much water, while generally in the west it was about who gets to use how much of the scarce water supply. In the arid western states water allotment is a method to equitably distribute this scarce resource. Some eastern states do have water quantity problems, typically not because of too little supply but rather because of increasing and competing demands. For a more detailed discussion please refer to W.R. 51-A Summary of Missouri Water Laws.

The Missouri Drought Plan (Revised 2002) is available online.

Do people have floating access to Missouri streams and lakes?

There is no state statutory right to access streams or lakes. The federal interstate commerce law has been interpreted by Missouri courts to allow public use of navigable streams. Missouri case law says one's right to float on a stream does not allow one to trespass on private property. Access to a stream must be from public property or with permission from the landowner. In Missouri on navigable streams, the landowner generally owns to the low water edge.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has its basis of determining navigable streams, and local counties have also made their own interpretation. Missouri trespass laws can be severe, so asking permission of a landowner to enter the property is always required. The Department of Natural Resources published A Summary of Missouri Water Laws, a state water plan publication that addresses this question. To find out more, visit the department's Document Search

How may I obtain groundwater level data?

The Water Resources Center can advise you on groundwater availability and casing depth requirements for public and community wells. Visit the Wells and Drilling website for more information.
Current Missouri Groundwater and Surface Water Monitoring is available. Current U.S. groundwater levels is also available by visiting this U.S. Geological Survey website.

The Missouri Geological Survey’s Wellhead Protection Section can help with private water wells and connect you with a certified driller in your area. Call 573-368-2171.

How do major water users register in Missouri?

Missouri has a water use registration that is required for all surface and groundwater users that have the capacity to pump or divert 70 gallons or more per minute. Major water users can register online or call 573-368-2175.

What if my property includes wetlands?

Some wetlands are regulated by the federal government. There are no state laws that are not tied back specifically to federal laws. If the wetland is in a farmed area, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has jurisdiction. If the wetland is near a stream with a defined bed and banks, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers may have jurisdiction.

Where can I find water level and flooding information?

The Water Resources Center has a statewide water level network with near real time data. Groundwater and Surface Water Monitoring can be accessed online, which also includes stream flows and additional reports about water conditions. Missouri Water Resources Center also cooperates with the U.S. Geological Survey. The National Weather Service is the responsible reporting agency for flood forecasting. 

Nothing in this document may be used to implement any enforcement action or levy any penalty unless promulgated by rule under chapter 536 or authorized by statute.

For more information