Riparian owners

Although you may not have previously realised, if you own land which is adjacent to a watercourse or land which has a watercourse running through or underneath it, you are by law considered to be a 'riparian owner'.

As well as certain rights to the watercourse, riparian owners have their own duties and responsibilities which they are legally obliged to fulfil. These apply equally to local authorities when they are the landowner.

The aim of these responsibilities is to help manage flood risk and protect the environment.

You are a riparian owner if

  • If you have an ordinary watercourse or a main river running through your land, underneath it or along the boundary of your property you are likely to be the riparian owner for that stretch of watercourse (unless the watercourse is known to be owned by someone else).
  • If the land on the other side of the watercourse is not in your ownership, you are presumed to be the joint riparian owner together with the landowner on the other side. In the case of joint riparian ownership, each party is presumed to own up to the centre line of the watercourse and therefore is responsible up to this point.

Your rights

  • To receive a flow of water in its natural state, without undue interference in quantity or quality.
  • To receive flow of water in its natural state, without undue interference in quantity or quality.
  • To protect your property against flooding and protect your land from erosion.

Your responsibilities

  • To maintain the watercourse and to clear any obstructions (natural or otherwise) so the normal flow of water is not impeded.
  • To accept the natural flow from your upstream neighbour and transfer it downstream without obstruction, pollution or diversion.
  • To maintain the banks and bed of the watercourse (including trees and shrubs growing on the banks) and any flood defences that exist on it.
  • To maintain any structures on your stretch of watercourse including culverts, weirs and mill gates.
  • To keep the bed and banks clear from any matter that could cause an obstruction and clearing any debris, natural or otherwise, even if it did not originate from your land.

What happens if a riparian owner does not undertake their responsibilities?

The maintenance and clearance of ordinary watercourses is vital to local flood risk management and we cannot emphasise enough the importance of regular maintenance.

If you fail to maintain the free flow of a watercourse, and flooding occurs as a result, we can request you to maintain the watercourse and you could face legal action. See enforcement for more details.

Making changes to the watercourse

A riparian owner may not carry out any work, other than general cleaning and routine maintenance (such as the removal of weeds or debris) in or adjacent to a watercourse without the consent of the regulating body. 

For more information on this see our watercourse consent page.

Riparian responsibility for roadside ditches

Riparian owners should note that ordinary watercourses include road side ditches, you may therefore be responsible for the maintenance of these where they border your land. 

If flooding on the road occurs due to an obstruction in the ditch, or drainage of the road into the ditch is prevented, the Council as the Highway Authority may exercise legal powers requiring the riparian owner to clear it.

Only if the Highway Authority has created a new ditch alongside the highway for the sole purpose of draining the highway, or constructed a culvert underneath the highway, would the maintenance of these facilities be their responsibility.

Living on the Edge: a guide for riparian owners

Residents are responsible for looking after and maintaining their own gullies and drains and to make sure that they are clear from obstruction.

The Environment Agency's guide Living on the Edge outlines the responsibilities of riverside ownership in more detail, how to fulfil these and what consents may be needed.

It also includes information on understanding flood risk, tidal watercourses, culverts, mills and dams and has incorporated an explanation of new requirements under the Water Framework Directive 2000 as well as the designation of structures as flood risk management assets.

We have also produced our own downloadable leaflet Watercourse, Ditch or Drain near your property? to help inform you of the expectations that Bedford Borough Council has of the riparian owners in the borough.