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What Are Riparian Rights? ~ by daniel

What Are Riparian Rights?

I’ve recently had the good fortune to spend time at Gold Valley Wood, nestling in the rolling Brendon Hills where Devon and Somerset meet. In this area a series of small streams and underground channels cross the landscape as the water drains from the high ground of Exmoor.  One such stream passes through Gold Valley Wood and forms a boundary with adjacent woodland at Silver Wood. It was this boundary that prompted me to consider further the issues affecting landowners where their property borders a watercourse.

Riparian rights are the rights of a landowner in respect of a natural watercourse on or adjacent to their property. Such rights originated in common law, having evolved from disputes in the past to become law. 

In the first instance, we need to understand what a “watercourse” means. This can be both open and above ground, such as a stream or river, or enclosed below ground, such as a spring. Notably, a watercourse need not at all times contain water but can be dry at certain times of year and, for the purposes of riparian rights, is deemed to be a natural-flowing channel rather than a man-made channel or still body of water. 

Whom do these rights affect?  Interestingly it’s not just those that have a watercourse flowing across their land that are affected, but also those with land where the watercourse forms a boundary with another landowner. In fact, even further than that, the rights apply where a watercourse passes immediately adjacent to a boundary, even if it is outside the landowner’s ownership, as the flow of the watercourse has the potential to affect this land. 

So what are these riparian rights? The key points are as follows: 

-The landowner has the right to protect his property from flooding and erosion. 

- Where a watercourse provides an ownership boundary, it is presumed under riparian rights that the mid-point of the watercourse is the boundary point unless expressly stated to the contrary on a title deed. - It is a right to receive the flow of water in its natural state without undue interference to quantity or quality. 

- A landowner may fish his own river provided it is by legal methods with the appropriate licenses. 

- It is a right to abstract water for domestic purposes up to a stated amount. It should be noted that riparian rights provide only a common law basis for landowners, but in recent time further legislation has been drafted in support of these rights to cover more complex cases. Most notably the Environment Agency provides licensing for commercial water extraction, fishing and the carrying out of works to alter a watercourse. 

Where riparian rights exist it follows that there will also be responsibilities; in the same way that it is your right to receive a flow of water without interference, it is therefore also your responsibility to ensure that you preserve this right for other landowners. Although you need not improve a watercourse, it must be maintained and kept free from obstruction including trees and shrubs on the banks and even dead animal carcasses that may contaminate the water, regardless of whether it is your animal. Fish must also be allowed to pass freely. 

To have the benefit of a stream in woodland is a source of immense enjoyment and riparian rights provide a sound and mostly commonsense basis to ensure that such features are retained and protected for the benefit of all its custodians.

Posted in: Practical Guides, Woodland Activities ~ On: 15 August, 2009

23 comments so far

Marilyn Wright
15 July, 2019

We own a Grade II Water Mill (mentioned in the Domesday Book. The Environment Agency have diverted a high proportion of the water which flows into our leat and through our house, into the river and, two days ago, the supply is zero. Wild life is drastically affected. Do I have legal rights to the water?

16 April, 2018

Hi, Cllr. Saint,
I think first thing to do is to ask what part of the act applies to this situation.
Then it’s probably worth asking what are the flow levels coming from the sewage outfall in relation to the natural flow of the stream.
Is this a stream maintained by the EA? Southern Water need this stream to take their outflow so should have an interest in its maintenance.
Here is a useful link https://www.gov.uk/guidance/owning-a-watercourse

Cllr. Chris Saint
16 April, 2018

I represent a number of residents who live adjacent to a “critical ordinary watercourse” known as the Marsham sewer in East Sussex. Flows of water including those of the outfall of the local sewage works are continual increasing. These increased volumes are gradual eroding the banks of this sewer to a point where a slippage has occurred. In the past the EA have repaired the banks but without notice are now relying on the residents to pay.
I have approached both Southern Water and the Environment Agency but I am no getting anywhere because they are invoking the Flood and Water Management Act 2010. Do you think this is a correct application of this Act?

Cllr. Chris Saint
31 March, 2018

I represent a number of residents who live adjacent to a “critical ordinary watercourse” known as the Marsham sewer in East Sussex. Flows of water including those of the outfall of the local sewage works are continual increasing. These increased volumes are gradual eroding the banks of this sewer to a point where a slippage has occurred. In the past the EA have repaired the banks but without notice are now relying on the residents to pay.
I have approached both Southern Water and the Environment Agency but I am no getting anywhere because they are invoking the Flood and Water Management Act 2010. Do you think this is a correct application of this Act?



Maggie Montgomery
9 February, 2018

Thank you Angus. We have now done what you have suggested. In fact we should have done it sooner.

28 January, 2018

Hi, Maggie,
Wow, that sounds like an unhappy situation. I think you have to consult a specialist rural property lawyer on this to find out what the position is on rights and obligations. Might be worth finding one near to where you live. – all the best with finding a resolution everyone is happy with, Angus

Maggie Montgomery
27 January, 2018

A leat runs along the edge of our property but totally within our property and across the bottom of our land. In the past our neighbour with riperian rights has constructed a “flood defense” system which diverts the flow of the leat away from the main channel/outlet (which has a make shift slush door, which she has constructed) across a gateway dividing our properties. This diversion has damaged our land. Our neighbour says she will repair the damage but that she has a right to do this diversion. She also says she has a right to come on our land and dig, divert, dam any time she pleases to ensure her flood defense system works. She has warned us not to interfere with her “engineering” and has been very intimidating threatening “action” if we do not obey her demands. We have asked her to repair the damage and to construct flood defense system inside her property, which seems reasonable to us but she refuses to do this. What are her rights and ours?

Richard Benson
3 July, 2017

Hi. We own a property backing onto a beck. Our boundary is a wall which drops into the beck. Do we have any legal duty to maintain any part of the beck, none of which we own, nor do we have fishing rights…and has been maintained in the past by the local council??

Carole Vaughan
8 March, 2017

A few weeks ago I caught two men fishing in the small river with flows through my woodland 80 acres and the other side of the road 4 acres. They had caught quite small fish approx 8 which where strung on a hazel twig , I challenged them and said they should hand over the fish as I was the land owner . They refused , I took down the van reg and reported it to the police , they have been to court and pleaded not guilty ; I have now been summoned to court , I told the police as a single female , I did not want to go to court , I have been told I could be prosecuted if I don’t attend . I would like any guidance , thank you.

liz A
2 August, 2016

We own a plot of land with a stream running around it, on the left hand side the brook runs past several houses. it was shown to be in our legal ownership in 1922 but somehow in further maps showed riperian ownership. although the rest of the stream is registered to us. we are in the process of almost acheiving flood defence works but one person has objected to the project hence putting it at risk. all other familes state that we have looked after the whole stream, dredging, cleaning etc. the objector states that he will lose his right of water although he never cleans it. Can he legally prevent a whole flood alleviation scheme which benefits all of his neighbours. His disputed riperian rights extent to approximately 10 metres. please advise

Stewart Love
19 July, 2016

The Riparian owner of some land on the river Trent in Newark on Trent has installed some mooring pontoons on his side of the river. I moor a boat to a pontoon on the inside between the pontoon and the river bank. It is NOT on a navigable part of the water . Do I need to purchase a River license from the water management authority (The Canal and River trust) as I am not moving the boat, navigating nor cruising the vessel.

Chris smiles
7 July, 2016

Can the owner of the other side of a drainage ditch take my side of the ditch if I don’t want him to. What happens if the same ditch is piped do I lose my right to half the ditch

mike coventry
20 April, 2016

I am about to purchase a small plot of land where a brook containing small brown trout forms one of the bounderies. I am keen for my granddaughter – 10 to occasionaly have a little fishing experience (any fish to be returned to the stream). By chance I was speaking to a person in a local pub who advised that his fishing club had all the fishing rights on this stream – which is about 3 miles long and that she could not fish even on my land. How true is this – how might I check his claim – what might I do to remedy the situation please? Any help much appreciated. Mike

Kim Wood
11 January, 2016

We own a property where our boundary reaches the waters edge of a fishing lake.
Do we have Riparian rights to abstract the water from the lake for domestic purposes? The previous owner used the water to irrigate his land.
Thank you for your help.

Derek Moore
10 July, 2014

Hi I own some land with a large river chalk stream runs through, I own both sides.
The fishing rights are owned by 2 people. These people have also let this fishing out to a club so I now have lots more people coming onto my land.
my questions are
1 if the fishing rights was given to one person back in 1922 and he passed them onto his sons, can they then calve them up and let them out to hundreds of people, hence I have to let all these people onto my land?

2 The people concerned are now bringing there families along and picnicking on the banks with children and even dogs. this is a problem as I farm and my animals have even had fly in there backs.

3 is there a rule that sets out “fishing rights” that I can refer to?

hope you can help

Ray Smith
14 April, 2014

Do we have any say as to who pumps water into our stream, at the moment Wessex water pump a large amount of water into our stream which keeps the water level high and the water running quite fast, before they started this practice we could get into the stream in the summer time and clear some of the choking weed that seems to infest the water, at high rain fall the stream is not able to cope and we get a flooding problem, the local council say they grant the rights Wessex to use our water course.

Mark Eyre
28 November, 2013

The right to fish is only available in England ( Scottish usage may be otherwise ) if you are the owner of the fishing rights. Being a riparian owner does NOT convey the right to fish. Always check with your solicitor, land registry and for the sake of good manners , your neighbours lest you find yourself pondering the costs of a case based in the antique tho’ current law of ‘ profit a prendre’.
Islands in the stream are yours if on your side of the river and shared appropriately if the mid point runs through a part of it …all very plain.

Michael Rolls
18 September, 2013

We have a boundary along a river bank and do not have a right of extraction for domestic use. Is it worth challenging this as we now keep sheep?

edward yeo
12 September, 2013

Sorry not necessarily. Look up accretion and erosion. If erosion is sudden boundary stays the same.

edward yeo
12 September, 2013

yes the centre line moves to mid way between both banks.

Robert E. Hedger
22 June, 2013

this is a question to which I seek an answer, please.

If a watercourse is widened artificially on an opposite bank, does this alter the riparian rights of the other owner i.e. does the centre line move with the alteration?

Paul Daniels
13 March, 2012

What is the most efficient way to extract water… and to what height? What is a syphon system as mentioned by Hamish Wilson

Hamish Wilson
16 August, 2009

Having just started extracting water from our burn, I would pass on a useful tip I have been given.
If you are trying to set up a syphon system use a small boat bilge pump! Produces a great suction up to about 50+ metres. It worked well for me.

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