Riparian Rights Law & Legal Definition


Riparian rights are the legal rights of owners of land bordering on a river or other body of water. A "riparian owner" is a person who owns land that runs into a river. Riparian rights are not ownership rights but rights of access to the water such as for drinking water, bathing, or irrigation.

State laws vary, but the extent of riparian rights non-domestic uses, such as for diversion of water to sell to others, for industrial purposes, to mine the land under the water for gravel or minerals or for docks and marinas, is unsettled. Riparian rights may include the right to build a wharf outwards to a navigable depth or to take emergency measures to prevent flooding. A riparian owner may not act to deny riparian rights to the owner of downstream properties along the waterway, meaning the water may not be dammed and channelled away from its natural course. Public ways which terminate at the edge of navigable waters are generally deemed to provide public access to the water. A city on behalf of its citizens is entitled to build wharves at the end of such streets to aid the public's access.

Rights of ownership attaching to owners of land borering a natural body of water include:

  • The upland.
  • The building and dock.
  • The bottomland offshore from the lot.
  • The aquatic vegetation growing on the bottomland.
  • The ice above the bottomland.
  • The right to fish, hunt, swim and boat on the entire lake surface in common with all other riparian property owners.

The following is an example of a state statute involving riparian rights:

  1. "Corporations authorized to construct and operate waterworks for the supplying of municipalities and their inhabitants, or others living or doing business in the vicinity of them, with water shall have the power, in order to obtain a supply of water for their storage ponds, reservoirs, pipes and canals, to take over and use, after condemning the same, water of any river, stream, spring or other water source which may be necessary for them to use for such purpose. They may also acquire by condemnation riparian rights and all such lands adjacent to such streams or water sources as shall be necessary to protect and preserve the purity of such supply; and they shall also have the power to condemn rights-of-way and sites of any necessary area for pipelines, ditches, canals, dams, storage ponds, reservoirs and other necessary purposes for the operation of their waterworks and the collection and distribution of the water supply. For this purpose, said companies may institute ad quod damnum proceedings against the riparian landowners or owner along such river or stream or of other sources, or the owner of any lands, wherever located, desired to be used for any of the purposes above mentioned, in the probate court of the county in which the land on or over which the easements sought to be condemned are situated in accordance with the general laws of this state providing for the condemnation of lands for public purposes.
  2. The power of condemnation given in this section shall include the right to condemn, wherever necessary for any of the purposes hereinbefore mentioned, any yard or curtilage of a dwelling house, garden, stable, lot or barn, or so much thereof as may be necessary.
  3. Whenever the ownership of the mineral interest in lands has been severed from the ownership of the surface and the mining of the minerals would endanger any proposed canal, storage pond or reservoir, said water companies may institute ad quod damnum proceedings against the owner, or owners, of the minerals situated under the proposed canals, reservoir or storage ponds in the probate court of the county in which the lands are situated in accordance with the general laws of the state, condemning said mineral interests or so much thereof as may be required for the support of the surface where said canal, reservoir or storage pond is to be located.
  4. In proceedings to condemn under this section, any number of, or all, the riparian proprietors or other owners along said river, stream or other water source in the same county may be joined in one proceeding or be proceeded against separately.
  5. No right-of-way shall be granted over the streets, avenues, alleys or public grounds of any municipal corporation without first obtaining the consent of the municipal authorities thereto.
  6. No corporation shall have the right to condemn the water of any stream, spring or other water source which is the property of another water company supplying with water a municipal corporation or the inhabitants thereof."