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Watercourse management

What is a Watercourse?

A watercourse is defined as any channel through which water flows. It may range from a reasonable-sized ditch with a constant flow to nothing more than a depression which carries water infrequently. Within the meaning of the Act “watercourses” can also be piped. Whilst watercourses may take runoff from the highway, the originating flow will normally be from a land drainage source.

Watercourses are classified as either:

Main Rivers: Managed by the Environment Agency. The responsibility for their maintenance and repair lies with the “Riparian Owner(s)”, although the EA also have powers to maintain and improve them. Further information on your responsibilities regarding Main Rivers is available on the GOV.UK website.

Ordinary Watercourses: The responsibility for their maintenance and repair lies with the “Riparian Owner(s)”

Awarded Watercourses: The responsibility for the maintenance lies with the Local District or City Councils (or another relevant authority/landowner).

The expression “riparian rights” refers to those common law powers and duties relating to the use of water associated with the ownership of the bank or bed of a watercourse. The deeds to a property may suggest who the riparian owner is but this is not always the case. The law therefore presumes, in the absence of contrary evidence, that land adjoining a watercourse includes the watercourse. If there is nothing specific in the property deeds and unless there is something to establish contrary intention, the riparian owner is responsible for the watercourse. A ditch alongside a road is normally owned by the adjacent landowner.

Roadside Ordinary Watercourses: There are 2 categories of roadside ditch:

  • A ditch on either the field side or roadside of fences and hedges taking land drainage as well as highway drainage, which under common law is the responsibility of the adjacent Riparian owner.
  • A ditch constructed by the Highway Authority, or wholly within the freehold land owned by them, solely used for draining the highway, which is the responsibility of the Highway Authority.

Under the Highways Act 1980, the Highway Authority has a prescriptive right to drain the highway to any adjoining roadside ditches. Rural roads rely to a great extent on ditches to remove water and their effectiveness is vital to keeping them in good condition. Common Law imposes a duty on the owner of land adjoining a highway to maintain these ditches that provide natural drainage for both the land and highway. In most cases the responsibility for ditch maintenance rests with the adjacent landowner.

Who regulates the different types of watercourses?

Different watercourses are regulated by different Risk Management Authorities (RMAs).

The Environment Agency is the RMA for watercourses designated as ‘Main River’. If you are planning to carry out work on, over, under or near a main river, you will need to discuss your plans with the Environment Agency.

Internal Drainage Boards (IDBs) are the RMA for ordinary watercourses within their rateable areas. If you are planning to carry out work near or within an ordinary watercourse in an IDB area, you will need to discuss your plans with the IDB before you start work.

If you are planning any work near or within an ordinary watercourse but outside of an IDB rateable area you need to speak with the Flood Risk Team within Cambridgeshire County Council to discuss your plans. The County Council has taken on the role for consenting and enforcement of works to ordinary watercourses in non IDB areas since 6 April 2012.