Living next to a watercourse

If you have a watercourse, such as a ditch, stream or river running through, or alongside, your property, you are probably responsible for its maintenance. In legal terms you are a 'riparian owner'.

Riparian owner

If you have an ordinary watercourse or a main river running through your land or along the boundary of your property, you are likely to be the riparian owner or joint riparian owner. This is unless the watercourse is known to be owned by someone else.

If you do not own the land on the other side of the watercourse, you are presumed to be the joint riparian owner together with the landowner on the other side. In joint riparian ownership, each party is presumed to own up to the centre line of the watercourse and is responsible up to this point.

If you are not sure whether you are the riparian owner of the watercourse running through your land, check the title deeds of your property.

Your rights

You have the right to:

  • receive a flow of water in its natural state, without too much interference in quantity or quality
  • protect your property against flooding from the watercourse and to prevent erosion of the watercourse banks or any nearby structures
  • fish in your watercourse - but you must use legal methods and may need a rod licence
  • abstract up to 20 cubic metres of water per day for the domestic purposes of your own household or for agricultural use (excluding spray irrigation) - most other types of abstraction need a licence from the Environment Agency

Your responsibilities

It is your responsibility to:

  • maintain the banks and bed of the watercourse - including any trees and shrubs growing on the banks and any flood defences that exist on it
  • maintain any approved structures on your stretch of the watercourse - these may include culverts, trash screens, weirs and mill gates
  • not build a new structure (for example, a bridge or boardwalk) that encroaches upon the watercourse or alters the flow of water without first obtaining permission from Bracknell Forest Council (for an ordinary watercourse) or the Environment Agency (for a main river)
  • pass on flow without obstruction, pollution or diversion affecting the rights of others

Riparian ownership examples

Multiple ownership

Diagram showing riparian ownership

Unless otherwise shown on the title deeds, all of the land owners in this picture would normally be riparian owners up to the middle of the watercourse.

House A is responsible for the all of the watercourse running through their garden. 

House B is responsible for the watercourse behind the fence at the bottom of their garden.

House C is responsible for the watercourse behind the fence and the pond.

House D is responsible for the culverted (piped) watercourse buried in the ditch in front of their land and the underground pipe which runs beneath their property to the pond.

House E is responsible for the open ditch in front of their house and the piped section under their access bridge.

House F is responsible for the watercourse at the end of their garden behind their hedge.

Landowner G is responsible for both the watercourses running along the edges of their land and the pond.

Joint ownership

Graph showing joint ownership of a watercourse

This image shows an example of a ditch with 2 riparian owners, labelled A and B, who each have to maintain their side of the ditch up to the centre of the watercourse.

As the ditch is located behind owners B's fence line, they may not realise that they are still a riparian owner and need to maintain the ditch.

One owner - ditch by the side of a road

Image of ditch along a road

This image shows a ditch running between a public highway and a field. The riparian owner of this ditch is the owner of the field. They need to maintain the whole ditch and make sure they meet their riparian responsibilities.

One owner - blocked ditch by road and under driveway

Image of blocked culvert

This image shows a ditch running between a public highway, a property and under a driveway. The riparian owner of this ditch and culvert (this is an area of ditch which has been piped) is the owner of the property next to the ditch.

They need to maintain the whole ditch, including the culvert under the driveway and to make sure they meet their riparian responsibilities. If the driveway gives access to more than one property, the riparian owner may wish to approach them to help with the maintenance of the culvert.

The image shows that the culvert is blocked and the water in the ditch is not able to flow. This may lead to flooding in the immediate area and further upstream.

Ditch maintenance examples

Well maintained ditch

Image of ditch along a road

This image shows an example of a well maintained ditch.

This is a free flowing ditch and clear of any obstruction. It is deep enough to accept water from upstream during times of increase rainfall.

Flooded ditch

Image of flooded ditch

This image shows an example of how flooding occurs if a riparian owner does not maintain their section of a ditch or culvert.

It can have devastating consequences upstream by causing flooding to homes, transport infrastructure and increasing the risk of injury.

Unmaintained ditch

Image of overgrown ditch

If a ditch is left to overgrow, it can become blocked and the water can stagnate. This may encourage unwanted insects to breed, such as mosquitos.

Watercourse maintenance

For more information, read our good practice for watercourse maintenance guide.

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To reduce the risk of flooding, we encourage riparian owners to work towards an effective watercourse system through a process of co-operation, liaison, advice and help.

Under the Land Drainage Act 1991 all councils have the powers to serve notice on riparian owners, for the removal of any blockage to an ordinary watercourse. Should the riparian owner fail to do so, we have powers to undertake the work ourselves and recharge the costs to the riparian owner. We will try to resolve problems through discussion with the owners in the first instance. Enforcement of legislation will only be used as the last resort.

Your responsibilities as a riparian owner are based on the legislation below:

Contact information

Highways and Transport