Having access to water can be a very valuable right, whether that is to use water for agriculture or industry, or whether it is simply to enhance the enjoyment of a residential property.
Rights and liabilities relating to water from arising from land ownership are generally referred to as riparian rights. This is a brief summary of those riparian rights.
When do riparian rights and liabilities arise?
Riparian rights and liabilities arise as a result of the ownership of land abutting natural water.
It does not matter whether the water is tidal or non-tidal, so long as the property has some contact with the water course during the day.
Riparian ownership can also arise when streams and watercourses are channelled through artificial culverts or leats, although different considerations then apply to determine whether someone is a riparian owner.
What are the rights?
First, a riparian owner is generally entitled to access to the water. That will mean that the water can be used for ordinary purposes, such as for livestock or domestic use. The right of access can also include the ability to pass over the foreshore or a river bed to get to the water and even to temporarily moor vessels adjacent to riparian land to load or unload them (although this does not confer a right to permanently moor).
In the case of natural channels, such as streams and rivers, where water is flowing from one riparian owner’s property to another, the lower owner is entitled to the flow of water in its natural state, both as to water quality and the quantity. That means that although the upper owner can take water and dam a stream, they should not do so as to materially interfere with the flow and quality of water for the lower owner. Likewise, the lower must accept the flow of water coming onto their land.
Although access to and use of the water is one of the principal riparian rights, riparian rights can also include the right to temporarily moor adjacent to their property to load or unload a boat and to walk across the foreshore or a river bed to get to a boat. However, this does not mean that riparian owners have the right to permanently moor.
Riparian rights can also include the ability to drain land to a watercourse.
What are the liabilities?
Apart from not unduly interfering with the flow of water, riparian owners can be required to accept flooding on their land, even if that is caused by natural obstructions downstream.
Further, riparian owners can have a liability to manage the risk of flooding. Flood risk is managed nationally by the Environment Agency and other statutory bodies, such as regional internal drainage boards. Those organisations can require riparian land to be used for management of flood risk.
Where natural water is channelled, such as in a culvert or a leat, different considerations apply.
How are the rights enforced?
As with other property rights, a riparian owner can take Court action to prevent interference with rights, such as by requiring the removal of an obstruction or to stop an adjoining riparian owner from drawing too much water.