Who owns a river?

Updated: Dec 13, 2018


Christchurch, River Avon

Land Registry details may tell you the answer although if the property has been in the same ownership for many years that may not be enough. The historic view was, as with roads and highways, that adjoining landowners own to the centre of the river - so if you own both sides, you probably own it all. You have the 'riparian rights'. But you may not be able to treat the river entirely as your own; many water management matters nowadays will need the approval of others eg: the Environment Agency, Natural England and/or the local drainage authority. If you have acquired the fishing rights, does the ownership of the river come too? You will need to check, as it may not be automatic. And what is the value of the river, especially if the fishing or full sporting rights have been sold off? You would expect it to be an asset but it may just bring expensive responsibilities. If there is an island in the middle of your river, who owns it and the access to it? There have been examples where a river island is owned by a third party and different to the two adjoining landowners, with access to it across their land and the water which are in different ownership. What rights do all the parties then have? Don't forget that river water is constantly moving; it can cause erosion and the river course can even move. You may find one day that you have gained land - or even lost a bit! And then where is your boundary? When you are near the coast and your river flows into an estuary and eventually the sea, your rights as owner may become even more 'muddied'! At what point is the river no longer the river but has become a tidal waterway? And where does your ownership end? Rivers are always eye-catching features to a property but there are lots of important details you should consider and check when you are buying or selling, and even when you already own and plan your management of a stretch of river.