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Advice on issues surrounding rivers running through your land

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We have been looking at some interesting points for landowners who are fortunate enough to have rivers running through their land.

In terms of boundaries the general rule or presumption is that where your land abuts a non-tidal river then your boundary will be the central line of the river.  The result being that as the course of the river changes naturally over time then your property boundary will change along with it.  However, this is not the case if the course of the river is artificially changed or suddenly altered regardless of how that sudden change occurs e.g. sudden erosion due to a flash flood or similar event.

Ownership of such land carries with it certain obligations, otherwise known as riparian responsibilities.  Tenants should check with their landlords as to who will manage the riparian rights and responsibilities as these have to be agreed between the parties.  Often a tenant may agree to undertake the responsibilities on a day-to-day basis although the landlord may still be ultimately liable to third parties for any breach; as is often the way, each case will turn on the facts and the wording of the lease/tenancy.

Ultimately you have responsibility for the stretch of river which you own and this includes matters such as ensuring that the water can flow naturally.  To that end you may need to keep any trash screens clear, remove fallen trees or other blockages, cut back trees or shrubs on the bank which are reducing the flow or causing flooding on neighbouring land – failure to do so may result in you having to pay damages.  However, all other trees and shrubs should be left in situ as they can help to reduce the effects of erosion on the banks.  It is worth noting that the Environment Agency has an incident hotline to enable you to report blockages, floods, badly collapsed or damaged banks and/or unusual changes in the flow of water.

Your responsibilities also extend to preventing pollution from getting into the water regardless of whether the source of such pollution is due chemicals directly entering the water or rainwater carrying topsoil and possible pollutants into the water, animal carcasses or other forms of waste finding their way into the river.  In addition you have certain duties to protect wildlife and to prevent invasive species, such as Japanese knotweed, from spreading.

Flooding will always be a key consideration when dealing with a watercourse on your land and although you have the right to protect your property from erosion and flooding you must not construct anything which may increase the flood risk to other peoples’ property or divert the water; in short you will need permission to build anything in or around the watercourse.  You may also need formal written consent from Natural England if you are working in the vicinity of a protected site such as a Site of Special Scientific Interest or a protected habitat, for example.

In the event that you have any listed flood defence assets on your land then you may find that you are also responsible for maintaining and repairing that flood defence.  If that is the case you will be able to check with either the Environment Agency for a main river or, for any other watercourse, your local flood authority or the internal drainage board.

If you are unsure about the ownership of a river or watercourse which runs through or abuts your land or you would like to discuss your responsibilities in respect of that watercourse then please do call us and speak to a solicitor within our specialist Agricultural Law department here at Crombie Wilkinson on 01653 600070. To find out more about our Agricultural Law team and how they can help you click here