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
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
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
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
Who do I need to contact to make a new drainage outlet into a
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
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
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?