Owners of hotels, homes, or resorts near a shoreline are expected to know the extent of their littoral rights or riparian rights, as the case may be. As we shall see, property rights extend beyond land. They can also include rights to adjacent features, such as a body of water, and to air rights. Property owners whose land adjoins bodies of water have a reasonable right to use and enjoy the water but do not own the water.

Water rights:

Littoral and riparian rights are two of the water rights. There is also a navigational right. A water right is a legal right to own, control, or use water. Owners of land adjacent to a water body exercise rights that are littoral or riparian depending on the nature of the water body, whether it is flowing or not.

Nature of water rights:

Water rights are appurtenant. This means they are attached to the land and not to the owner. Therefore, the rights naturally follows the land where it is sold or inherited. The government can take away littoral rights through public acquisition.

Low water and High water mark

The concept of the low water mark and high water mark determines the extent of private or state ownership. The point on the shore where the water meets the land is known as the low-water mark. The ownership of the land beneath a body of water is determined by the low-water mark. The majority of the time, the land’s owner has ownership rights up to the low-water mark. Below the low-water line, the bed of navigable water is often owned by the state. The bed is typically kept in the public’s trust.

In the United States, each state provides its own water rights. It is therefore correct to say that there is no uniform national system of water rights. For fresh water, any one of the following laws may exist in a state:

  1. The bed belongs to the adjoining riparian owner.
  2. The state owns the bed below the low-water mark, and the riparian owner has the rest.
  3. The state owns the bed up to the high water mark.
  4. The rule in each state may be different

Navigational rights:

The Constitution gives the federal government the power to regulate interstate commerce, which includes transportation on navigable waterways. However, states still have their own laws that controls navigable waters. A Navigable water is a body of water that can be used for transportation purposes.

The rule is that if a body of water is navigable, it should remain a public resource and available for use by everyone. According to federal law, the beds of all navigable waters belongs to the states, while the beds of nonnavigable waters belong to the upland owner.

In United States v. Holt State Bank 270 U.S. 49 (1926), the Supreme Court stated the rule for determining navigability as follows:

By the federal rule, streams or lakes which are navigable in fact are navigable in law; they are navigable in fact when used, or susceptible of use, in their natural and ordinary condition, as highways of commerce over which trade and travel are or may be conducted in the customary modes on water, and navigability does not depend on the particular mode of such actual or possible use — whether by steamboats, sailing vessels, or flatboats — nor on the absence of occasional difficulties in navigation, but upon whether the stream, in its natural and ordinary condition, affords a channel for useful commerce.

Littoral definition

“Littoral” refers to anything related to, situated on, lying on, or near the shore of a sea. The term extends to the part of a river, lake, sea, or ocean close to the land. Terms like littoral zone, littoral land, littoral rights, and littoral landowners derive their meaning from the definition. Contrast this with the phrase “riparian” which refers to everything relating to moving water, such as rivers and streams.

Littoral Land vs. Riparian Land

Land near to a body of water that is non-flowing is referred to as littoral land. A pond, lake, ocean, or sea’s edge is considered to be littoral land. On the other hand, with the phrase “riparian land,” which literally means river bank. Riparian land refers to land next to moving water, such as rivers and streams.

Littoral landowners have ownership rights up to the high median watermark, or the water’s edge at high tide. While riparian landowners have rights up to the water’s center. Unlike the riparian rights, littoral rights are often affected by tides while the same can’t be said for riparian rights.

Littoral rights vs. Riparian Rights:

Littoral rights:

This water rights confers dominion of the shore up to the median high water mark to the land owner while riparian rights grants licenses to use water from rivers and streams for domestic and commercial uses.

Littoral rights include:
  • the right to use the water for recreation
  • the right to build structures on the shoreline. A duly authorized dock or other littoral structure is private property. It is similar to a private driveway and no one can legally interfere with the exercise of this right of access.
  • The right to access the water.
  • The right to fish in the water and to hunt on the shoreline.
Littoral rights do not include:
  • the right to pollute the water
  • the right to block access to the water.
  • the right to dam the water, unless authorized
  • The right to build a bridge across it.

Riparian rights

For riparian rights to attach, the water body must form a boundary on one side of the particular tract of land claimed to be riparian. Riparian rights include the right to use the water to all reasonable domestic and commercial uses. Such uses include:

  • rights to irrigation, swimming, boating, and fishing. 
  • Ownership of additional land and silt deposited by the natural action of water. 
Riparian rights do not include:
  • such use that alter the flow of water like building dams, unless authorized.
  • contaminating the water.

Littoral rights in real estate:

Buying or leasing a real estate beside a shoreline provides such luxuries. You would have unfettered access to the water and the right to use the beach that borders it. Additionally, you would be granted sole usage of the seashore up until the median high water mark. These benefits are essential if you intend to raise a hotel, a vacation resort or home.

The Littoral rights can greatly increase the value of a property and makes it more attractive to buyers or customers.

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