It can be quite complicated. Read the wikipedia article on water right, below. Such rights depend on time and place and sometimes the nature of the rightholder. In some states, such as Montana, the state technically owns all the waters in the state, but that does not supersede water rights held by others.
Water rights is a complex issue. In the US, water rights are divided between the rights held by the public and the rights held by the government. Some public rights include swimming, canoeing and other recreational activities. The government reserves the right to claim water rights for public works projects and regulatory actions. In terms of rivers, it may be helpful to focus in on a few of particular interest because most have a complex, detailed history of water rights.
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