This section describes responsibility for the drainage of ground and surface water through streams and rivers.
The owner of land forming the bed or banks of a stream is entitled to the enjoyment of ‘riparian rights’. These rights entitle a landowner, whose land adjoins a watercourse, to the benefits and enjoyment of it.
However, these rights, which may extend to rights of navigation, mooring or fishing, also mean that the landowners (often referred to as ‘riparian owners’) have responsibility for maintaining the proper flow of water through the stream. These riparian rights are incidental to a parcel of land and cannot be sold to another person, other than the landowner.
It is normal to presume that adjoining landowners are responsible for maintenance of the land up to the centre of the stream, unless it is known to be owned by others.
The responsibilities of a riparian owner means that they must maintain the banks and bed of the stream in such a condition that they are kept clear of any obstruction to the flow of water. They must maintain any structures, such as culverts and trash screens and must also allow flood flows to pass through the stream without interruption.
What do I do if a nearby stream is blocked with debris?
If you have noticed an obstruction on a stream, which does not pose a potential risk of flooding to property, you may wish to contact the owner of the land through which the stream passes to advise them of the problem.
If you are unsure of whom the landowners are, or you are concerned that the problem could lead to flooding of property, you may wish to report the problem to the relevant Agency to investigate.
Which Agency do I need to contact?
Large rivers, which have the potential to affect large numbers of homes and businesses when in flood, are usually under the control of the Environment Agency and are referred to as ‘main rivers’. To report a problem with a ‘main river’, or to identify which watercourses are classified as ‘main rivers’ you will need to contact the Environment Agency on 0870 850 6506.
Smaller streams and watercourses are known as ‘ordinary watercourses’ and are controlled by the Environmental Health Department. To report a problem with a blockage on an ‘ordinary watercourse’ you will need to contact the Environmental Health Department on 0845 050 4434.
For pollution problems on streams and rivers please refer to our Pollution of Watercourses section. For further advice on land drainage and flooding matters see our Flood Defence pages or contact an officer from the Environmental Health team.
Who owns the water in streams and rivers?
Flowing water in a channel is not owned by anyone. Water taken lawfully becomes the property of the person who takes it. Riparian owners have rights to use water from natural streams, but the volume that they extract is governed by Environment Agency.
Who do I need to contact to make a new drainage outlet into a stream?
If you intend to construct a new drainage outlet into a stream (either a ‘main river’ or an ‘ordinary watercourse’) you may need to obtain consent from the Environment Agency before doing so. Contact the Environment Agency on 0870 850 6506.
Who do I need to contact to carry out works in a stream or river?
If you intend to carry out works in a stream or river, or to construct a bridge or other structure over a watercourse, you may need to obtain consent from the Environment Agency before doing so. Contact the Environment Agency on 0870 850 6506.
Can I get more detailed information?
For further background information concerning the responsibility for streams and the role of the local authority please refer to our leaflet "Response to Flooding Incidents - A Guide for Property Owners & Occupiers"
Alternatively you may wish contact an officer from the Environmental Health Department on 0845 050 4434 who can advise you further.