What is a watercourse?
A watercourse is defined as any channel through which water flows including rivers, streams, drains or culverts. This includes any channel that takes seasonal flows and which may at times be dry.
Watercourses serve to drain the land to enable it to be worked and assist in supporting animal and flower life. Historically, watercourses have taken water run off from buildings and roads, as well as fields and parks. In the process of development many have been culverted or changed in other ways.
Watercourses may be classified as either 'main river' or 'ordinary watercourses'.
Main rivers are usually larger streams and rivers but may also be smaller watercourses of strategic drainage importance. A main river is defined as a watercourse shown as such on a main river map held by the Environment Agency and can include any structure or appliance for controlling or regulating the flow of water along its course in or out of a main river. The Environment Agency has powers to carry out flood defence works to main rivers.
An ordinary watercourse is any other watercourse which does not form part of a main river.
The Highways Authority (Warwickshire County Council) has a right to drain water from the highway into adjacent ditches. The responsibility of maintaining these ditches remains with the riparian owner.
If you live or you own property that is next to any watercourse or you have a watercourse that flows through your property you are a 'riparian landowner' and 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 that person is the joint riparian owner for the length of watercourse adjacent to the boundary. Unless the landowners’ deeds show otherwise, it is presumed that each party owns to the centre line of the watercourse.
A riparian owner is responsible for accepting water from their upstream neighbour and transferring this, along with any existing drainage from their own property, freely, to their neighbour downstream. Further riparian landowner’s responsibilities are detailed as follows:
- Responsibility to pass on flow without obstruction, pollution or diversion affecting the rights of others.
- Accept flood flows through their land, even if caused by inadequate capacity downstream. There is no common law for a landowner to improve the drainage capacity of a watercourse.
- Maintain the bed and banks of the watercourse (including trees and shrubs growing on the banks) and for clearing any debris, natural or otherwise, including litter and animal carcasses, even if it did not originate from their land.
- Must not cause any obstructions either temporary or permanent that would prevent the free passage of fish.
- Responsible for keeping the bed and banks clear from any matter that could cause an obstruction either on their land or by being washed away by high flow to cause an obstruction at a structure downstream. Rivers and their banks should not be used for the disposal of any form of garden or other waste.
- Must keep any structures clear of debris. These structures include culverts, trash screens, weirs and mill gates.
- The responsibility for protecting the property from seepage through natural or man-made banks. Where such seepage threatens the structural integrity of a flood defence it may become the concern of the Environment Agency.
For more information on riparian ownership, visit:
- GOV.UK - Riverside ownership: rights and responsibilities (‘living on the edge’)
- Warwickshire County Council - Riparian Ownership
If you wish to change the watercourse
Plans for any works on watercourses other than general cleaning and routine maintenance such as the removal of weeds or debris must be approved by the Environment Agency (Main Rivers) or Warwickshire County Council (Ordinary Watercourses) who are the Lead Local Flood Authority. Consents for the work must be secured before starting any work. This applies to any modifications which might affect the flow characteristics or capacity and include installation of dams, weirs, mills, channel diversions and culverting.
- Main Rivers - GOV.UK - Flood risk activities: Environmental permits
- Ordinary Watercourses - Warwickshire County Council: Land Drainage Consents
What happens if ordinary watercourses are not maintained?
The riparian owner must not cause or perpetuate a nuisance, such as causing obstruction to the flow of water in a stream by causing the channel to become blocked, which may cause flooding of properties up stream.
North Warwickshire Borough 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 ordinary watercourses have become blocked resulting in a flood risk or a health hazard. These powers are contained in the Land Drainage Acts 1991 and 1994, and sections 259 – 265 of the Public Health Act 1936.
Warwickshire County Council as Lead Local Flood Authority (LLFA) has a responsibility to investigate flood incidents under Section 19 of the Flood and Water Management Act 2010.
They also have powers under Sections 23, 24 and 25 of the Land Drainage Act 1991 to issue ordinary watercourse consents, enforcement against un-consented works and general enforcement of riparian landowner duties.
Last updated Wednesday, 22nd April 2020