Riparian Ownership - Rights and obligations

Under common law, a riparian owner possesses rights over and responsibilities for the stretch of a watercourse that forms the boundary of their property. A riparian owner is anyone who owns a property where there is a watercourse within or adjacent to the boundaries of their property and a watercourse includes a river, stream or ditch. A riparian owner is also responsible for watercourses or culverted watercourses passing through their land. Riparian responsibility can also lie with the tenant of the property, depending on the agreement. 

A watercourse is any natural or artificial channel above or below the ground through which water flows such as a river, brook, beck, ditch, mill, stream, culvert, drains, cuts, dykes, passages, pipes and even sewers (other than public sewers). Watercourses drain the land and drain surface water away and help to prevent flooding and assist in supporting flora and fauna. Watercourses take water runoff from buildings and roads and fields and parks. If the system of ditches and culverts are maintained, any flooding is likely to only affect the area in the floodplain.  

Who owns what? 

It is normally presumed that in respect of a non-tidal river, a riparian owner owns the river bed and the soil under it up to the centre-line of the watercourse. This can be rebutted by the title deeds. 

If both banks of a river run through or under your land, you are fully responsible for its maintenance. If the banks run adjacent to your property, you are likely to be responsible for the maintenance of the watercourse bank on your side to half way across the bottom of the watercourse (unless the title deeds show otherwise). 

If a ditch or watercourse is adjacent to your property or runs alongside your garden wall or hedge, even if it does not fall inside your property boundary, then, unless the title deeds show otherwise or the land is owned by someone else, you are likely to be responsible for the maintenance of the bank of the ditch on your side to halfway across the bottom of the watercourse. 

If a watercourse runs underneath your property or land, it is your responsibility to keep it clear of debris and keep it running freely. It is assumed in this case that you own the stretch of watercourse that runs through your land. You must carry out regular maintenance otherwise if a culvert blocks, it can cause flooding upstream and you may be liable.

Rights of a riparian owner 

  • The right to use water for certain purposes connected with the land including fishing provided that legal methods are used and a rod licence will usually be required from the Environment Agency. Anyone aged 12 or over must have an Environment Agency rod licence. Again, please check your title deeds because fishing rights can be sold or leased;
  • The right to abstract up to 20 cubic metres of water per day for domestic or agricultural use without a licence;
  • The right of flow of water in its natural state without obstruction or interference in its quantity or quality;
  • The right of purity i.e. to have the water come to you unpolluted;
  • The right to protect your property against flooding from the watercourse and to prevent erosion of the watercourse banks or any nearby structures. If you wish to start work to protect your property you must first get your plans agreed with the risk management authority before you start work. Any work on the watercourse must be approved by the District or Borough Council and you must obtain their consent before commencing work.

You cannot carry on activities that could lead to pollution and you can’t take water from a watercourse if it could lead to a lack of water for those who need it downstream. 


  • To maintain the watercourse and to keep it clear of any obstructions (natural or otherwise) which would impede the normal water flow and manage flooding;
  • To accept the natural flow from your upstream neighbour and transfer it downstream without obstruction, pollution or diversion;
  • To maintain the banks and the bed of the watercourse including trees and shrubs growing on the banks and any flood defences that exist on them;
  • To control invasive alien species such as Japanese Knotweed;
  • To maintain any structures on your stretch of watercourse including culverts, weirs and mill gates and to keep free of debris;
  • To keep the bed and the banks clear from any matter that could cause an obstruction and clear any debris, natural or otherwise, even if it did not originate from your land;
  • Not to build a new structure that encroaches upon the watercourse or alters the flow of water of prevents the free passage of fish without first obtaining permission from the Local Authority or Environment Agency.

You have a legal obligation to notify the Environment Agency and the relevant risk management authority if you would like to build or alter a structure that acts as an obstruction to a watercourse. 

To find out further information please click here.

Posted on 6 September, 2016 by Ortolan

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