Riparian Rights – Who Owns the Water?

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Assume you own a parcel of land that abuts a pond or river. Do you also have rights to the water?  Similarly, assume you and a neighbor own separate parcels of land that abut the same pond or river. What rights do each of you have to that body of water?

Riparian rights refer to the rights of a landowner to use bodies of water — such as ponds, lakes, streams, or rivers — that border the land.  These rights exist by operation of law and have been embodied in Illinois law for over a century. If two separately-owned properties abut the same body of water, both land owners have equal rights, and neither owner may exercise their rights in a manner that prevents the other from utilizing the body of water.

But what ownership rights do the owners have if the body of water abutting two properties is a river? The Third District Appellate Court answered this question in Adam Holm et al. v. Peter Kodat et al.  In Holm, the plaintiffs and defendants each owned property that abutted the Mazon River in Grundy County, Illinois.  The plaintiffs used kayaks on portions of the river that abutted their property, but wanted to kayak along the entire Mazon River.  The defendants objected to plaintiffs’ use of kayaks on the portion of the Mazon River that abutted their property.  The trial court found in favor of the defendants.

The Third District Appellate Court agreed, adopting the trial court’s reasoning that regardless of the fact that kayaks could be used on the Mazon River, it was a non-navigable body of water, and as such, each property owner owned up to the center of the river abutting their respective properties.  Accordingly, the defendant landowners could lawfully bar any and all trespassers (including their neighbors) from the segment of the Mazon River that abuts their property.  Thus, the court held that the defendants could bar plaintiffs from using their kayaks on the portions of the Mazon River abutting the defendants’ property. Correspondingly, under Holm, the plaintiffs have the right to bar defendants’ use of the Mazon River abutting plaintiffs’ property.

When it comes to land use, especially in situations involving riparian rights and easements, it is important to know what your rights are.  For more information regarding these or similar issues, please contact Roenan Patt at rpatt@lgattorneys.com or (312) 368-0100.

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