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What are Riparian Rights?

By Caitlin Kenney
Updated May 23, 2024
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Riparian rights are a system of rights and duties that determine the reasonable use, duties, and allocations of water to owners of waterfront property. These rights are rooted in English common law, so they are typically implemented in former British colonies such as the eastern United States and Canada. In principle, these rights ensure that riparian owners can make reasonable use of water adjacent to their property while protecting the rights of other riparian owners.

A person must own land adjacent to a body of water to be considered a riparian owner. Generally, a riparian owner has inherent riparian rights included in his property rights. The owner usually has exclusive rights to his bottomland for anchoring docks or rafts, his beach, and his upland, but not to the water itself. The owner cannot infringe upon the rights of other riparian owners or the public to make reasonable use of the water. Reasonable use is weighed by proportion of land owned that abuts the water and the needs of other users.

The particulars of riparian rights vary by country, by state, and by body of water. Rights to fishing, building, and operations to prevent flooding are traditionally protected, but since issues of water scarcity, fish endangerment, pollution, and sedimentation have come to light, governments often step in to regulate. There is also high precedent for disputes between riparian owners, as riparian rights are based on the principle of not impinging on others’ rights. These disputes, however, usually solve only the immediate problem without setting rules or precedent for future disputes. This allows for flexibility, which is important as environments and owners change.

In England and Wales, riparian rights and duties are laid out by the Environmental Agency. These riparian owners may build into the watercourse with government supervision unless it impedes navigability or unless the land underneath is owned by someone else. Welsh and English owners also have the right to protect their land from flooding with supervision of the Environmental Agency and fish with an Agency rod license. The right to fishing, unlike the property right portion of riparian rights, can be sold or transferred, but any fishermen must be licensed. Riparian owners have the duty to keep riverbeds, water, culverts, and trash screens clean, and not to obstruct the migration of fish.

In the United States, the majority of states east of the Mississippi River follow the principles of riparian rights. These rights are similar to those in England and Wales and are monitored, for the most part, state by state. U.S. states have run into several disputes over the moving of water from its natural watercourse. The Roman Empire’s Justinian Code and Roman tradition laid the foundation for much of riparian rights, setting forth the idea that water is a public good and should not be diverted from its natural course. Much of the disputes in the United States, especially in the southeast, center around this principle and the desire to use water for hydropower, irrigation, or drinking water.

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Discussion Comments
By anon328084 — On Apr 01, 2013

@anon191614: I'm not an attorney, and definitely don't know Missouri law (other than that it's a public land state). Generally speaking, riparian principles from the common law are going to apply, subject to restrictions on how patents and deeds are registered in Missouri and the County you live in. It also depends how your land was described in the chain of deeds going back to the original patent.

Depending on how the land reappeared, you might be able to reclaim it. If it appeared by accretion - gradual building up on the near bank - it might be your family. If it appeared gradually from receding waters - relict ion - it might still belong to your family. Once a new survey is done, the accreted land might be shared with your neighbours, depending on whether the land itself or shorefront is more valuable. Bottom line, you'll need to hire a lawyer to sort out your rights.

By anon191614 — On Jun 29, 2011

Our family property adjoining the Missouri River in Missouri was eroded by the river over a period of years back in the early 1900's. From over a thousand acres it was reduced to just over 400 acres. Now, many acres have reappeared and are dry land. Is there a way to reclaim this land for family members?

By trekker — On May 14, 2011

@liz1103 - Blocking someone who has an easement can be a cause for a civil suit. But, if you have riparian water rights, there are legal actions you can take. Easements are not automatic. If there is no existing paperwork on the easement, the person using your land would have to prove the necessity.

By liz1103 — On May 12, 2011

I was wondering how riparian rights are affected by easement rights. I know some places allow access to public lakes and beaches by crossing private property, particularly if they have to use it to get to private property or there's no other way to get somewhere during high tide.

By Charmagne — On May 11, 2011

As someone who has land with a shared irrigation ditch, I find this quite helpful. I was familiar with having 'water rights', but the word 'riparian' is new to me. There are often issues with this on our local river as well.

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