A river runs through it – buying or developing land near a watercourse
If you own, or are looking to purchase, property which includes or adjoins a river or other watercourse, you will be taking on legal obligations as a “riparian owner”. This article is the first in a short series setting out in brief your obligations and rights, how a watercourse affects the boundaries of your property, and issues you should be aware of if you are buying or developing property near to or including a watercourse.
What is a riparian owner?
A riparian owner is an owner of land which abuts or has within its boundaries, a watercourse (which includes rivers, streams, ditches, culverts (a covered channel or pipe) and brooks).
What obligations do riparian owners have?
Riparian obligations arise from common law and from statute. The obligations mentioned below are not exhaustive, and you should always take legal advice specific to your property.
In general, riparian owners have obligations to:
- Allow the water to flow naturally – owners could be required to cut back trees and shrubs on the bank and remove blockages
- Prevent invasive species from spreading onto neighbouring land. Japanese Knotweed and Giant Hogweed are commonly found near watercourses
- Protect wildlife, including not disturbing birds, fish and other animals
- Not pollute the water
- Manage flood risk and maintain flood defences and river banks (but not change, remove or build flood defences without permission), including protecting banks from erosion
- Get permission from the Risk Management Agency (‘RMA’ – see below) to carry out works
- Permit the RMA to come onto the property to carry out flood risk management works
The RMA for a property depends on the type of watercourse:
- For “main rivers”, the RMA is the Environment Agency. You can check if your watercourse is a main river here.
- For any other watercourse, the RMA will be your local internal drainage board (see here), or if there is none, then it will be your “lead local flood authority” (usually the local unitary authority or county council – see here).
What rights do riparian owners have?
Riparian rights have arisen under the common law in the same way obligations have developed. These rights are not absolute, and you may need consents from the local council, internal drainage board, the Environment Agency or other public body before you can exercise them.
Riparian rights may include the right to:
- Protect the property from flooding and erosion (but see above regarding works that may require the RMA’s consent)
- Extract water – again, you may need the RMA’s consent, depending on the amount and flow of the water
- Fish (subject to obtaining a rod fishing licence)
- Moor (subject to registering the boat with the local navigation authority). However, if the owner of a river bank does not own any part of the river bed, there is no right to moor
- Discharge into the watercourse (subject to obtaining any necessary consents, compliance with environmental law, and the rights of other riparian owners, e.g. for their property to not be flooded)
- Benefit from the flow of water in its natural quantity and quality
These rights are subject to any limitations imposed on the title to the property, so a thorough review of the title documents is always advisable.
The next article will explore how riparian rights and obligations can affect the boundaries of a property, and points to consider when buying or developing land which abuts or includes a watercourse. The final article will consider the consequences of not complying with riparian obligations, and other practical things to consider.
The content of this page is a summary of the law in force at the date of publication and is not exhaustive, nor does it contain definitive advice. Specialist legal advice should be sought in relation to any queries that may arise.
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