Ultimate Guide to Pumping Water from a River, Lake, or Creek

Everything you need to know about pumping from a surface water source such as a lake, river, or stream for domestic purposes. Includes detailed information on how to size a water pump.

Updated: December 4, 2023
Jeremiah Zac


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Are you one of the fortunate few to have access to a stream or creek from which you can pump clean water?

If so, you’ll find all the information you’ll need in this article to get the best results from your surface water source.

Like groundwater, surface water is one of the best clean water sources for supplying a small home or cabin with irrigation or indoor uses.

But, as with anything related to water, you need to be aware of several important technical, practical, and legal factors before you can start pumping.

This article will cover:

  • Water rights: is it legal to pump water in your area?
  • What can a surface water supply be used for?
  • How to pump water from a river or lake
  • How to size a water pump

Is it Legal to Pump Water From a River or Lake?

vintage pumping water / Government Press Office / creative commons

The very first place to start your water project is to check with your state and county agencies about water rights and laws for pumping surface water. Pumping water in restricted areas can result in some pretty hefty fines or other legal consequences.

Water laws are handled on the state level and may even vary from county to county, so be sure to check with your local water jurisdiction before attempting anything. The departments that typically handle water laws are the state’s water resources department or environmental protection department, so that would be a good place to start.

Riparian Rights vs Prior Appropriation

While continuing to stress the importance of checking with your state and county’s water laws, there are some nationwide water law doctrines that are worth looking over to help you better understand water rights in general.

Because the topography of the United States varies greatly from one coast to another, states have adopted their own legislation to accommodate water availability. Since the Eastern states generally have more available water sources than the arid Western states, a doctrine known as Riparian Rights has come to be more prominent there. Conversely, Prior Appropriation is much more common in the West.

Riparian Rights

The core principle of the Riparian Rights doctrine is that a property owner may access the body of water that touches their property if used in a reasonable manner. “Reasonable,” according to water law, generally means that the water source is used on the land on which the property owner resides, not in excessive amounts, and in a way that won’t affect the usage of others who may be using the same source.

Prior Appropriation

To accommodate water scarcity in the West, a doctrine known as Prior Appropriation was created to give water rights on a first-come-first-serve basis. Under Prior Appropriation, the landowner, municipality, or business that first accesses and uses the water source gains priority rights.

Each state will either loosely or strictly adhere to either of these doctrines and may even have some of its own variations. Some states have a hybrid law doctrine that incorporates elements of both. Again, check with your state for specific regulations.

How Can Surface Water Be Used Domestically?

Remote cabin and pond / Kaibab National Forest Photography / creative commons

Whether it's a lake, river, stream, or small creek, the type of source from which your water will be drawn will play a significant role in determining the best overall setup for your system. This will, in turn, affect how your water is used.

A deep, static water source such as a lake or pond may better suit a submersible pump versus a shallow stream that can accommodate a hydraulic ram pump. But a submersible pump will be able to fulfill a wider range of water needs than a ram pump would.

These distinctions are important to identify upfront.

Identify your main water needs

With the right conditions, a surface water source can provide a home, cabin, or cottage with most, if not all, of its water needs. As long as an adequate flow rate can be achieved, drinking, cooking, and gardening needs can be met.

Determining exactly how the water will be used is a key step in setting up your water pumping system—it will decide how to best arrange the details of your system, including the type, size, and location of the pump.

Outdoor uses: gardening, irrigation

Those wishing to supply their garden with clean water from the lake or river may run a line to a collection tank. Storing water in a collection tank allows you to access water quickly and easily without overworking the pump, significantly extending its life.

Collection tanks come in various sizes and are typically made of food-grade polyethylene plastic with fittings for hose attachments.

Indoor uses: drinking, cooking, bathing

In order for surface water to be used for indoor purposes such as cooking, bathing, and drinking, a filtration system and pressure tank will be necessary.


Water from rivers, lakes, and streams can contain biological contaminants such as Giardia and E. coli, making humans sick if consumed. So, a filtration system is of first priority.

A UV purifier paired with a pre-sediment filter at the point-of-entry (the location at which the water line enters the house) or a reverse osmosis system at the point-of-use (the location at which the water line exits the faucet) would work well with a surface water system.

Pressure Tank

Secondly, in order to best utilize the water pump, a pressure tank should be installed to regulate water pressure. A pressure tank stores pressurized water so that fixtures such as faucets and showered heads can experience high-pressurized water flow when turned on. It also gives the water pump a break from having to pump continuously whenever water is required.

Plan Ahead

Installing a pumping system for your home or cabin involves some engineering and a bit of creativity—some technical aspects can't be compromised, but there will also be room for problem-solving and improvising.

It is important to envision the big picture and your main needs at the early stages so that you can identify all the technicalities needed to accommodate them.

Once you’ve determined the source of water and the main purpose for which it’ll be used, as well as any legal restrictions that may be involved, you can move on to determining the size of your pumping system.

How to Pump Water from a Creek, Lake, or River

Understanding water pumping engineering basics

So, you've checked with your state and found out that pumping water is perfectly legal in your area. You have a great source of water on your property, and you've figured out exactly what you want to use it for. Now you're ready to learn HOW to pump water from it.

One little caveat before we dive in—this stuff can get really technical, so be prepared to exercise the left side of your brain for the next several paragraphs. Whether installing the system yourself or hiring a contractor to do it for you, knowing how it all works is extremely beneficial as it will help you better maintain, modify, and troubleshoot it in the future. Plus, if you are hiring someone, the more you know about the process, the better for everyone.

And if you are DIY from the ground up, all the details are extremely important in a water pumping system. An incorrectly sized pump will either not provide any water at all or, worse, can cause long-term, very expensive damage. So, you can't cut corners.

OK, onward.

Flow Rate and Pressure

The first basic concept to understand is the relationship between flow rate and pressure.

Flow rate can be described as the volume or “amount” of water that comes through a water pumping system. A high flow rate is associated with more water, and a low flow rate is associated with less water. Flow rate is expressed in gallons per minute or GPM.

Pressure is associated with the amount of force within the water system. From a practical perspective, a high-pressure shower is much more desirable than a low-pressure shower.

Ultimately, a water system with high-pressure and a high-flow rate is generally more desirable. The problem that pump science has to overcome is that there is a lot of resistance that prevents most water systems from achieving the target pressure and flow rate. This resistance can come in the form of gravity, friction, and distance of which water has to travel.

The goal of the water pump is to overcome this resistance and provide the user with the desired amount of water pressure and flow. But finding just the right pump is crucial. Too weak of a pump will result in poor pressure and flow or none at all. Too strong of a pump can result in damage and a shortened pump life.

The objective for the homeowner is then to find the right type of pump by calculating the exact amount of pressure and flow the system requires.

This is why it's important to determine the purpose of the water use upfront. A sprinkler system will have different pressure and flow requirements than a kitchen faucet.

How to size a pump

In pump engineering, flow rate is expressed at GPM and pressure is expressed as TDH. These two measurements will be unique to your system and we'll work through how to calculate them as you'll need them when you choose a pump.

Flow rate: Gallons Per Minute (GPM)
washing hands under faucet

Faucet / Alicja / Pixabay

Flow rate is the overall amount of water that will flow through the system and out of the fixtures—a faucet, showerhead, garden hose, etc. Flow rate is expressed in GPM or gallons per minute in the United States. In other places, it may be expressed as liters per minute. Regardless of which unit of measurement is used, the concept remains the same.

The average flow rate for a home’s internal water system is typically between 6-12 gallons per minute, depending on the number of faucets, showers, and appliances being used. A larger home with more bathrooms and water fixtures will require a higher flow rate than a smaller home with fewer fixtures.

A single fixture flows at a rate of 1-2 GPM. By counting the number of fixtures, you can get a rough estimate of the flow rate demand for your home or cabin.

Determining your exact flow rate demand can be a very precise process that goes beyond the scope of this article. There are formulas to help calculate the exact number which may be necessary for large home applications. But for the purposes of drawing water for a small cabin or cottage, a ballpark range should do.

Once you've determined what your flow rate is, keep this number for later.

Pressure: Total Dynamic Head (TDH)

Total Dynamic Head Diagram / watermission.org

Measuring TDH is a bit more complex as it involves several critical steps.

As the pump creates pressure within the system, it needs to overcome a certain amount of resistance in order to provide the desired amount of water pressure at the fixture outlet. And because resistance comes in the form of various factors such as air pressure, pipe length, and friction, measuring it requires the sum of all of these factors.

The total sum of this resistance is called TDH or Total Dynamic Head.

Because TDH is a collection of different units of measurement, the simplest way to measure TDH is by feet.

There are three components that make up the Total Dynamic Head. They are the vertical lift (often called static head), friction loss, and operating pressure.

Vertical lift / Static head

Vertical Lift Diagram / watermission.org

Vertical lift, or static head, refers to the amount of pressure the pump will have to overcome when pushing water upwards. Because water is heavy, it creates a strong downward pressure on the pump, similar to how divers experience pressure in their eardrums as they descend further toward the ocean floor.

Vertical lift measures the total vertical distance the water must travel from the outlet of the pump to the highest part of the water system. It is important to note that vertical pressure doesn’t account for any horizontal distance in the water system, nor does it account for moving water. It only measures vertical distance while the water is perfectly still which is why it's also referred to as "static" head. Water in motion causes changes in pressure which we’ll account for later.

In order to measure vertical pressure, simply measure the distance from the pump outlet to the highest point of the water system. This distance is measured in units of feet. Keep this number for later calculations.

Friction loss

Friction Loss Diagram / watermission.org

Water in motion causes changes in pressure. As water moves through pipes, pressure is lost as it comes into resistance with the pipe walls and corners. The width and material of the pipes, as well as the total distance that water has to travel through, are all major factors in calculating friction loss.

This “friction” causes water to lose pressure and must be accounted for, as the pump will need to work harder to compensate for it.

In order to account for friction loss, you’ll need to reference a friction loss chart or calculator. But before that, you’ll need to know the flow rate and the total length and diameter of your exit pipe. Some friction loss calculations involve as much detail as counting all the corners and right angles in the pipe.

Some of these numbers might not be available—and you'll just have to work with what you have. But as with any aspect of pump engineering, the more precise the calculations, the more likely the pump system works to your benefit.

If you’re purchasing a pump to add to your home or cabin's existing plumbing system, check with the original building plans to find out the length and diameter of your pipes—rather than having to measure everything yourself.

But if you’re designing your water system from the ground up, say for a small cabin or an outdoor irrigation system, the selection of your pipe materials will be a major factor. Larger-diameter PVC pipes move water much better than smaller copper pipes and rubber hoses. Consider 2" PVC pipes for better flow.

Once you’ve gathered these numbers, reference the friction loss chart to get the total friction loss number in units of feet. Save this number for later.

Operating pressure

Finally, operating pressure simply refers to the desired amount of water pressure at the point of use. Generally, people like a significant amount of pressure, especially when using showerheads and kitchen faucets. Other appliances, such as sprinkler systems or pressure tanks, will have a specific operating pressure that must be met.

The operating pressure is largely preferential in most cases, but on average, the final operating pressure among all the fixtures usually ranges between 30 psi and 80 psi for most homes. But, like vertical lift and friction loss, we’ll need this number expressed in units of feet.

To convert from psi to feet, use this calculator. Or simply multiply the psi by 2.31.

Now that you have the numbers that make up the TDH, simply add them together.

Add the vertical lift, friction loss, and operating pressure together, in units of feet.

This final number is your Total Dynamic Head. It accounts for all the potential resistance that a pump will encounter when attempting to push water through the system.

Final Step: The Pump Curve

If you've made it this far, you should be very proud of yourself. These basic pump engineering concepts aren't easy to grasp, and people pay lots of money to learn them.

But again, whether you're hiring someone to install the pump for you or you're the DIY type, understanding how your pumping system works will reap long-term benefits overall.

So, moving on.

Now, you should have your TDH expressed in feet and your flow rate expressed in GPM.

You'll need these two numbers when selecting a pump.

Pump manufacturers will display a lot of information about the pump, such as horsepower, voltage, max PSI, and even flow rate in GPM. One of the misconceptions that new pump buyers usually have is that a pump with a certain GPM or PSI rating will produce that exact GPM or PSI in practice.

This is simply not true. Pump manufacturers make a variety of pumps in order to meet the various requirements that homeowners and consumers may have. The GPM rating on a pump will only produce that much under specific conditions. But it may very well be under or over that number.

As a buyer, what you’ll need to pay attention to most is the manufacturer's pump curve chart. Referencing your TDH and GPM, you’ll be able to determine which pump will meet your exact needs.

Here's an example of what a pump curve looks like for an above-ground jet pump.

Each pump will have its own performance curve unique to its specifications.

Notice the TDH scale on the left side of the chart and the GPM scale on the bottom, then find where your numbers lie on each scale.

Draw a horizontal line from your TDH number on the left and a vertical line from the GPM number on the bottom. If these two lines meet at any point on the performance curve, then this pump will meet your requirements. Ideally, you'll want the point to meet somewhere in the middle of the curve for optimum efficiency.

If the two lines meet anywhere above or below the curve, this specific pump will not perform to your requirements. You'll need to check out another pump.

Pump curves can look confusing. Luckily, a sales associate should be able to assist you in reading the curves and selecting the right pump for your needs. They’ll be glad you already have the TDH and GPM handy.

Which Type of Water Pump Should I Use?

There are many different classes of water pump designs—the best suited for your needs will depend on the factors mentioned earlier: distance from the water source, intended water usage, water depth, and power source.

And while pumps can vary greatly in design, the basic pump science remains the same. They all provide a flow rate in GPM, have a vertical lift to overcome and suffer friction loss.

Let's have a look at the most practical water pumps for surface water pumping.

Submersible Pump

Red Lion Submersibe Pump

Submersible pumps are electrical centrifugal pumps that are fully submerged in a water source, pushing water up through a channel and into the piping system. While often used for water well applications, they’re ideal for deep water sources such as a lake or large pond as they can be left completely submerged underwater and controlled via a pressure switch.

Submersible pumps operate best when suspended between the surface of the water and the lake or pond floor so as not to pick up debris that may be present at the bottom. To achieve this, a flotation device would need to be attached to the pump to keep it in place.

One of the main advantages of a submersible pump is that because they’re left inside the water source, they can be left untouched without the need to monitor them. This makes them ideal for water sources with dramatic changes in tide where an above-ground pump would be less suited.

Submersible pump / watermission.org

Submersible pumps are also great for pushing water up far distances, making them ideal for water sources that aren’t close to their point of use.

One thing to consider about submersible pumps is that they do require a power source; therefore, an extension cord of a length equal to the exit line will be necessary.

For more information, check out our article on the best submersible pumps for deep wells. Submersible pumps can be used for both deep wells and surface water applications.

Above-Ground Jet Pump

jet pump blue

Public Domain / PxHere

Jet pumps come in a variety of styles and are used for an even wider variety of applications, including water well and surface water pumping. They’re typically made of cast iron or thermoplastic material and contain powerful impellers that spin, creating a vortex to pull water from a short distance and push it upwards an even greater distance.

Jet pumps are reliable and durable, and come in a variety of sizes to meet virtually any pumping need.

One of the disadvantages of an above-ground jet pump is that they have a 25-foot minimum intake head. This means the water source cannot be greater than 25 feet vertical from the pump. This can pose problems for rivers or lakes with an elevated bank.

Jet pump / watermission

Rivers or lakes that have dramatic changes in tide may not provide a consistently dry location for the pump to stay since above-ground pumps cannot be submerged.

For more information, check out our article on the best jet pumps. Jet pumps work for both shallow wells and surface water applications.

Hydraulic Ram Pump

Ram-Pump / land to house

A ram pump is a device that uses gravity and pressure to pump water while eliminating the need for a power source such as electricity or gasoline. This makes them convenient for very remote areas where an electric grid might not be available.

Ram pumps work by using the downward flow of a stream or river to build pressure within a collection chamber. When enough pressure has been built up, water can be pushed through an outlet much like any electric-powered water pump.

Ram Pump / watermission.org

The steeper the decline of the river or stream, the greater the pressure being collected in the chamber and, thus, the more powerful the outward pressure.

Ram pumps require a steady flow of water in order to build pressure and, therefore, will not work in still-water environments such as a lake or pond. While ram pumps are great for pumping low-volumes of water without the need for electricity, they won’t be as powerful as a centrifugal pump.

Land to House makes an excellent 1-1/4" Hydraulic Ram Pump of brass and PVC material.

Solar Pump

A solar-powered submersible or above-ground pump is another alternative for pumping water in regions where an electric grid isn’t available. Given the right conditions, a solar pump can virtually run indefinitely and cost-free.

Solar Pump / watermission

It is important to note that steady exposure to the sun will be required in order for the pump to have enough energy to run. And many solar pumps aren’t able to generate as much power as an electric-powered pump. This makes them more ideal for small cabins with low flow requirements.

Important Considerations and FAQs

What type of pipe material is best?

The pipe material you use has a significant role in overall friction loss. Straight PVC pipe is smooth and tends to cause less friction than a hose which can have unwanted kinks and pinches in the water line.

Naturally, a wide pipe flows better than a narrow pipe. So, if you’re struggling to maintain adequate flow and pressure, try opting for a larger diameter.

Do I need a storage tank?

For gardening and irrigation purposes, an outdoor storage tank can help provide a supply of water that’s ready to be accessed at any time instead of always having to turn on the pump.

water storage tanks / sustainable sanitation / creative commons

The best material for water storage tanks is food-grade polyethylene plastic of opaque color. They range in size from 50 gallons to 1,000 gallons or greater.

For more information on storage tanks, check out our review article on the best water storage containers.

Do I need a pressure tank?

Well Pressure Tank

Well Pressure Tank / Silver Cymbal / Youtube

A pressure tank is a crucial component of a water system when used for indoor purposes such as cleaning, bathing, cooking, and drinking. The difference between a plastic storage tank and a pressure tank is that the pressure tank keeps water pressurized so that the water exits the fixtures with force without having to wait for the pump.

Pressure tanks are typically used for water well applications and can also provide many benefits for surface water pumping as well.

For more information, check out our article on pressure tanks.

How do I protect the pump from damage and/or debris?

Whether using a submersible pump or an above-ground jet pump, the portion of the pump intake that rests in the water should be protected.

Submersible pumps should be secured so as not to be moved by the water current or some curious animal. A flotation device will do well in keeping the pump suspended mid-way in a lake—but securing it to a counterweight such as a rock on the lake floor may also be beneficial in preventing it from moving.

Jet pumps will require a line from the water source to the intake valve on the pump. The entry point of the water line should be secured with a weight so as not to let it be moved. A debris filter, such as a mesh screen or wire net, should be installed at the entry point to prevent gravel from entering the water line. Further sediment filtration can be taken care of at the home’s point of entry with a sediment filter.

How do I filter the water for drinking?

For those who intend to use the water supply for consumption, a proper filtration system is critical due to the many potential contaminants that exist in surface water.

A whole-house filter at the home’s point-of-entry can be customized to have all the necessary filtration components for surface water, such as sediment filtration, carbon filtration, and UV purification.

Alternatively, a reverse osmosis filter at the point of use will provide all the necessary filtration as well.

There are many home filtration options to best suit your needs. For more information, check out our article on the best water purification systems for homes.

How do I know which type of pump is best for me?

Whether it be a submersible, above-ground, or ram pump, selecting the best type of pump and the place to put it will largely be dependent on factors such as the location of the water supply, the topography of the land, and how the water will ultimately be used.

Ram pumps are ideal for remote areas with no power grid but are only suitable for moving water sources and will generate a limited flow rate.

Submersible pumps are more suited for deeper, static water sources such as a lake but will require a very long connection to a power source.

Above-ground jet pumps cannot have a vertical intake of greater than 25 feet. So, if you’re on a cliff, canyon, or elevated bank of some sort, and the water source is greater than 25 feet below, a jet pump won’t be able to pull the water that high if it’s placed at the top.

Also, keep in mind, the greater the incline from the water source to the place of use, the harder the pump will have to work.

Consider your terrain, purposes, and overall setup when selecting the type of pump. There is a lot of room to get creative in designing a water system.

Thank you for taking the time to read our article on pumping water from a river. We'd love to hear your feedback in the comments section below. If you've found this article to be useful and are interested in learning more, be sure to sign up for our newsletter.

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I'm Jeremiah, the owner of World Water Reserve. I'm a writer and researcher with a particular interest in sustainability and rural living, water scarcity, and innovative water purification methods. I utilize my multimedia and communication experience in the NGO and humanitarian fields to bring light to important topics. My passion is to educate others on the reality of the global water crisis and on ways to sustain themselves and their families in the midst of it.
Jeremiah Zac