Managing a Watercourse

If you own a watercourse that is within or adjacent to your property, you are a riparian owner and have several legal responsibilities.

Picture shows how to manage a watercourse well by installing correct drainage.

If you live by or own property that is next to any watercourse, or you have a watercourse that flows through your property, you are a 'riparian landowner'. This means you have 'riparian' rights and responsibilities which have been established in common law for many years.

If the land on the other side of the watercourse is owned by a third party, then it is likely that this person is the ‘joint riparian owner’ for the length of watercourse adjacent to the boundary. Unless the landowners’ deeds show otherwise, it is always assumed that each person owns the area up to the centre line of the watercourse.

Calm river with woodlands surrounding the river bank.
Riparian rights and responsibilities

A riparian owner is responsible for accepting water from their upstream neighbour and transferring it – along with any existing drainage from their own property – freely, to their neighbour downstream. More responsibilities of the riparian landowner are detailed as follows:

  • Pass flow onwards without obstruction, pollution, or diversion.
  • Accept flood flows through their land, even if these are caused by inadequate capacity downstream. Riparian owners have the right to protect their property from flooding but must agree plans with the appropriate authority beforehand.
  • Maintain the bed and banks of the watercourse (including trees and shrubs growing on the banks) and clear any debris, natural or man-made, including litter and animal carcasses, even if it didn’t originate from their land.
  • Not cause any obstructions that would prevent the free passage of fish.
  • Keep the bed and banks clear of any matter that could cause an obstruction. Rivers and their banks should not be used for the disposal of any form of garden or other waste.
  • Keep any structures clear of debris. These structures include culverts, trash screens, weirs and mill gates.
Calm river bank.
Useful resources

Depending on the type of watercourse, you must report issues to either the Environment Agency or Calderdale Council and get consent from the appropriate body in order to undertake any work.

Download the Managing a Watercourse leaflet for an overview of the rights and responsibilities of a riparian owner and a list of useful resources.


Main rivers vs. ordinary watercourses

A main river is defined as a watercourse shown as a ‘main river’ on a main river map.

An ordinary watercourse is every river, stream, ditch, drain, cut, dyke, sluice, sewer (other than a public surface water sewer or highway drain) and passage through which water flows, but which does not form part of a main river.

These occur naturally, and they serve to drain the land and help support animal and plant life.

In normal conditions the watercourse may be a dry channel in the ground, but in storm conditions it may become a raging torrent.

River flowing fast.
If you wish to change the watercourse

Plans for any works on ordinary watercourses other than general cleaning and routine maintenance (such as the removal of weeds or debris) must be approved by Calderdale Council as the Lead Local Flood Authority. Consents must be secured before starting any work.

To undertake work on an ordinary watercourse you should apply for Ordinary Watercourse Consent by emailing or calling 01422 288002.

If the watercourse is classed as a main watercourse (usually larger rivers or streams) the Environment Agency is responsible for authorising consent to works and carrying out enforcement action. In order to carry out work on a main watercourse you need to apply for an environmental permit by emailing or calling 03708 506 506.

The Environment Agency has a page explaining your rights and responsibilities as a riparian owner in more detail. You can view this here.


What happens if ordinary watercourses are not maintained?

The riparian owner must not cause or perpetuate a nuisance, such as obstructing to the flow of water in a stream by allowing the channel to become blocked. Calderdale Council has no responsibilities (except where it is a landowner) for land drainage. However, it has permissive powers and can (but is not obliged to) serve notice on individuals and carry out works in default if watercourses have become blocked, resulting in a flood risk or a health hazard.

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