A private landowner is considered by law to be a ‘riparian owner’ if you own land which:
- is located next to an ordinary watercourse , or
- has an ordinary watercourse running through or underneath it.
If the land on the other side of the watercourse does not belong to you, you’re presumed to be a joint riparian owner, together with the landowner on the opposite side of the watercourse.
The dividing line for each joint riparian owner is presumed be the centre line of the watercourse and each is responsible for their side of the watercourse and the clear flow of water through it.
Riparian owner responsibilities
Riparian owners are responsible for accepting water from the section of watercourse owned by your upstream neighbour and transferring this, together with drainage from their own property, to your neighbour immediately downstream.
You’re also legally responsible for:
- accepting natural flow from your upstream neighbour and passing it downstream without causing any blockages, pollution or alterations.
- maintaining the watercourse’s channel and banks, including trees and plants growing on the banks.
- keeping the bed and banks clear from any items that could cause a blockage or barrier, natural or otherwise, even if it did not originate from your land.
- keeping clear any man-made structures that you own such as culverts, debris filter screens, weirs and mill gates.
- applying for and obtaining written consent if you wish to place or build anything, such as dams, weirs, mills, channel diversions, culverting or piping, which may affect the flow of your watercourse.
We have the power, under the Land Drainage Act 1991, to force private riparian landowners to keep their watercourse in an acceptable condition. Any official action taken by us can lead to prosecution and could result in a fine, including our recovery costs.
The Environment Agency’s guide Living on the Edge provides riparian owners with further advice.
Read the Living on the Edge guide