Riparian rights and responsibilities

What are your rights as a riparian owner?

If your land boundary is next to a watercourse, it is assumed you own the land up to the centre of the watercourse, unless it is owned by someone else. If a watercourse runs alongside your garden wall or hedge you should check your property deeds to see if your wall or hedge marks the boundary. If the watercourse marks the boundary, it is assumed you own the land up to the centre of the watercourse.

If you own land with a watercourse running through or underneath it, it is assumed you own the stretch of watercourse that runs through your land.

Occasionally a watercourse, especially an artificial one, will be the responsibility of a third party. This should be noted in your deeds.

Water should flow onto or under your land in its natural quantity and quality. This means that water should not be taken out of a watercourse if it could lead to a lack of water for those downstream. It also means that a person cannot carry out activities that could cause pollution to a watercourse.

You have the right to protect your property from flooding, and your land from erosion. However, you must get your plans agreed by the relevant Risk Management Authority (RMA) before you start work.

Please remember these rights are affected by your duty to other riparian landowners, the community and the environment.

What are your responsibilities as a riparian owner?

You must let water flow through your land without any obstruction, pollution or diversion which affects the rights of others. Others also have the right to receive water in its natural quantity and quality. Riparian owners all have the same rights and responsibilities.

You must accept flood flows through your land, even if these are caused by inadequate capacity downstream. A landowner has no duty in common law to improve the drainage capacity of a watercourse they own.

You should keep the banks clear of anything that could cause an obstruction and increase flood risk, either on your land or downstream if it is washed away. You are responsible for maintaining the bed and banks of the watercourse and the trees and shrubs growing on the banks. You should also clear any litter, debris or animal carcasses from the channel and banks, even if it did not originate from your land.

You should always leave a development-free edge on the banks next to the watercourse. This allows easy access to the watercourse in case any maintenance or inspection is required.

In some areas local bylaws exist which explains what you can or cannot do within certain distances of a watercourse. For more information on works near watercourses contact the relevant risk management authority (RMA).

You must keep structures such as culverts, trash screens, weirs and mill gates, clear of debris.

Discuss the maintenance of flood defences such as walls and embankments on your property with your RMA. They may be vital for flood protection.

You should not cause obstructions, temporary or permanent that would stop fish passing through.

Please help us protect water quality. Do not use riverbanks to dispose of garden or other waste where it could be washed into the river. This includes grass clippings, which pollute watercourses.

You are responsible for protecting your property from water that seeps through natural or manmade banks. Where this damages a flood defence, your RMA may require you to pay for repairs.

Your property may include a watercourse that runs through a culvert. You have the same responsibilities for the upkeep of a culvert as if it was an open watercourse.

What happens if I do not undertake my riparian responsibilities?

If you do not carry out your riparian responsibilities, we can request you to maintain the watercourse and you could face legal action under The Public Health Act 1936, The Land Drainage Acts 1991 and 1994, the Water Resources Act 1991 and the Environment Agency Land Drainage Bylaws 1981.

The same information about the rights and responsibilities of a riparian owner is also available in the leaflet below.