Riparian water rights
|Part of the common law series|
|Estates in land|
|Future use control|
|Other common law areas|
Riparian water rights (or simply riparian rights) is a system for allocating water among those who possess land along its path. It has its origins in English common law. Riparian water rights exist in many jurisdictions with a common law heritage, such as Canada, Australia, and states in the eastern U.S.
Common land ownership can be organized into a partition unit, a corporation consisting of the landowners on the shore that formally owns the water area and determines its use.
Under the riparian principle, all landowners whose property adjoins a body of water have the right to make reasonable use of it as it flows through or over their property. If there is not enough water to satisfy all users, allotments are generally fixed in proportion to frontage on the water source. These rights cannot be sold or transferred other than with the adjoining land and only in reasonable quantities associated with that land. The water cannot be transferred out of the watershed without due consideration as to the rights of the downstream riparian landowners.
Riparian rights include such things as the right to access for swimming, boating and fishing; the right to wharf out to a point of navigability; the right to erect structures such as docks, piers, and boat lifts; the right to use the water for domestic purposes; the right to accretions caused by water level fluctuations; the right to exclusive use if the waterbody is non-navigable. Riparian rights also depend upon "reasonable use" as it relates to other riparian owners to ensure that the rights of one riparian owner are weighed fairly and equitably with the rights of adjacent riparian owners.
Riparian rights and duties in England and Wales
- ownership of the land up to the centre of the watercourse - unless it is known to be owned by someone else
- right for water to flow onto your land in its natural quantity and quality
- right to protect property from flooding, and land from erosion (but subject to approval by the Agency)
- right to fish in the watercourse - however this right may be sold or leased, and a fisherman must have a valid Environment Agency rod licence.
- right to acquire accretion
- right to boomage
- to pass on the flow of water without obstruction, pollution or diversion affecting the rights of others
- to accept flood flows, even if caused by inadequate capacity downstream, but there is no duty to improve the drainage capacity of a watercourse
- to maintain the bed and banks of the watercourse and to clear any debris, whether natural or man-made
- to keep any culverts, rubbish screens, weirs and mill gates clear of debris
- to be responsible for protection of your land from flooding
- to not cause any obstructions - either temporary or permanent - that would prevent the free passage of fish
The United States recognizes two types of water rights. The Western arid states follow the doctrine of prior appropriation while water rights for the eastern states follow riparian law as discussed here. Under riparian law, water is a wandering thing like the air, sunlight, or wildlife. It is not "owned" by the government or private individual, but is rather part of the land over which it falls from the sky or travels along the surface.
In determining the contours of riparian rights, there is a clear distinction between navigable(public)waters and non-navigable waters. The land below navigable waters is the property of state 43 USC § 1311(A) and subject to all the public land laws. Navigable waters are treated as public highways with any exclusive riparian right ending at the ordinary high water mark. Any riparian right is subordinate to the public right to travel on the River, but any public right is subject to nuisance laws and the police power of the state. Because a finding of navigability establishes state versus federal property, navigability for purposes of riverbed title is a Federal question determined under Federal law; the States retain residual power to define navigability for the purposes of defining the public trust over water within their borders. PPL Montana v Montana 132 S.Ct. 1215 (2012).
The state could chose to divest themselves of title to the streambed but the water remains subject to the "Commerce Clause" of the Constitution which by holds a easement or "servitude" benefiting the federal government for the purpose of regulating commerce on navigable bodies of water. Borax Consolidated, Ltd. v. City of Los Angeles, 29 U.S. 10, 56 S. Ct. 23, 80 L.Ed 9 (1935.)
The "reasonable use" of the water by a riparian owner is subject to the downstream riparian owners 'riparian right' to receive waters undiminished in flow and quality. Since all surface waters eventually flow to the public ocean, federal regulatory authority under the Clean Waters Act -like the Clean Air Act- extends beyond only public (navigable) waters to prevent downstream pollution.
States Idiosyncrasies Federal courts have long recognized that state laws establish the extent of the riparian and public right. In the case of navigable waters, title goes to the average low water mark. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court defined this as the "ordinary low water mark, unaffected by drought; that is, the height of the water at ordinary stages." Appeal of York Haven Water & Power Co., 212 Pa. 622, 62 A.97 (1905). Land beyond the low water mark belongs to the state government in the case of the 13 original states. Lands between the high and low water marks are subject to the police powers of the states. (See United States v. Pennsylvania Salt Mfg. Co., 16 F.2d 476 (E.D. Pa., 1926)). In the case of the original 13 states, upon ratification of the United States Constitution, title to these lands did not change, it remained vested in the several states.
As new lands were acquired by the United States, either by purchase or treaty, title to the highways and the beds of all navigable or tidal lakes, or rivers became vested in the United States, unless they had been validly conveyed into private ownership by the former sovereign. McKnight v. Brodell, 212 F.Supp 45. During the territorial period of these lands, the United States held these title "in trust" for the benefit of the future states which would be carved out of the territory. Hymes v. Grimes Company, 165 F. 2d 323. Each of the states were to come into the Union on an "equal footing" with the original thirteen states.
Under the equal footing doctrine, territorial states are vested with the same sovereign title rights to wetlands as the original thirteen states. Pollard v. Hagan, 44 U.S. 212, 3 How. 212, 11 L.Ed. 565 (1845). However, during the territorial period, the United States could convey certain of these lands under the limited circumstances of promoting commerce. Brewer Elliot Oil and Gas Co. v. U S., 260 U.S. 77, 43 S.Ct 60, 67 L.Ed. 140 (1922).
Ownership of these submerged lands was resolved by Congress passing the Submerged Lands Act, 43 U.S.C.A. 1301, which confirmed state title to the beds of all tidal and navigable bodies of water. While this act conveyed title to lands below tidal and navigable waters to the states, non-navigable stream beds are treated like dry lands and are part of the adjoining estates. Waters subject to the ebb and flow of the tides, even though non-navigable, also passed to the states while the ownership and public use of these tidal lands is based on state laws.
Of particular interest to many landowners is how Riparian Rights pertain to the installation and placement of piers, dock, wharves and moorings.
There is some variance in how this issue is interpreted from one state to another. And, there is an abundance of case law, including rulings that directly contradict one another. In general, the courts have ruled to the effect that a "Riparian Zone" is delineated by extending property lines into the waterway, such that no landowner may install docks that cross these lines into the Riparian Zone associated with another property.
- air rights
- Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (in the UK)
- crown land (see "logging and mineral rights" under Canada)
- easement ("the right of use over the real property of another")
- freedom to roam
- land rights
- prior appropriation water rights
- riparian zone
- drinking water
- water rights
- sustainable habitat
- United States groundwater law
- right to light
- Guerin, K (2003). "Property Rights and Environmental Policy: A New Zealand Perspective". Wellington, New Zealand: New Zealand Treasury.
- Living on the Edge - Environment Agency website, retrieved 10 December 2008
- American Law and Legal Information Encyclopedia
- Western States Water Laws: Water Approciation System
- Is Lake View one of your Riparian Rights
- What Are Riparian Rights -- Eastern United States