Riparian Rights and Land Surveying

Riparian rights, also known as littoral rights or riparian water rights, is a system of allocating water when multiple landowners possess land around the source of the water. With origins in English common law, Riparian rights exist in many countries, including Canada and Australia, as well as many states within the United States, particularly in the eastern half of the country.

The general principle of riparian water rights holds that all landowners with property adjacent to a body of water (such as a lake or river) have the right to make reasonable use of this water. This not only includes water up to the boundaries of a submerged property line, but also additional rights to water beyond the property line. If the amount of water is not enough to satisfy all landowners, allotments of the water are usually made in proportion to the amount of land directly abutting the water’s source, or the shoreline. In general, those owning land adjacent to the waterway are also assumed to own the land up to the center point of the waterway, unless land deeds state otherwise. This, however, may not be true if the waterway is navigable by boat. In this case, the average low water mark is the line used to determine land ownership. In many states, land below this mark belongs to the state government.

Riparian rights may include such activities as swimming, boating, and fishing, the right to build a wharf out to a point of aquatic navigability, the right to erect docks and piers and the right to use the water for household needs. The rights to this water cannot be sold or transferred, unless the adjoining land is also transferred. The water cannot be transported outside of the immediate area.

Although those living adjacent to a waterway have the right to protect property from both flooding and erosion, these activities are often subject to approval by various environmental agencies. Those with property next to a waterway also have the duty to allow the water to pass freely from one property to another, without pollution or diversion affecting the rights of other landholders. Landowners also have the responsibility to maintain the bed and banks of the watercourse, including keeping the area clear of debris or obstructions.

Due to small frontage, some lots receive a very small portion of water allocation, perhaps not enough to make use of the water without conflict with adjoining property owners. The configuration of the shoreline can affect riparian rights. In some cases, the entire waterway is apportioned, while in others, only the water near the shore is apportioned. The method use depends on the size of the lake or width of the waterway, among other factors.

An owner’s riparian rights, along with title to land along the river or lake, is dependent upon accurate knowledge of the property. Because water flows can affect the course of the shoreline over time, land surveys are often required to determine the exact property boundaries. In Public Land Survey System areas, a Meander Corner Monument or MC was set at each point where a section line intersected a river or lake. However, a survey of the coastline or shoreline area may show that there is more or less exposed land than seen on a previous map or survey. Natural phenomena such as storms, particularly hurricanes, can drastically change these boundaries, affecting the applicable riparian rights and often requiring a new survey.