Last edited 14 Dec 2017


According to the Environment Agency, a watercourse is ‘…any natural or artificial channel above or below ground through which water flows, such as a river, brook, beck, ditch, mill stream or culvert.’ Ref. Living on the Edge, Environment Agency 2014.

Watercourses can be open, or can be underground and may sometimes be dry. Very broadly, watercourses are defined as main rivers or ordinary watercourses:

  • Main rivers include rivers, larger streams and smaller watercourses of strategic drainage importance.
  • Ordinary watercourse are rivers, streams, ditches, drains, sluices and so on which do not form part of a main river.

Owners of land that is next to or includes a watercourse have riparian rights and responsibilities. There may be a number of parties with riparian rights and responsibilities along the length of a watercourse, particularly where it runs along a boundary between two properties. Where land is rented, the parties should agree who is responsible for the watercourse.

Riparian landowners are responsible for:

  • Accepting upstream water and transferring it freely to their downstream neighbour without obstruction, pollution or diversion affecting the rights of others.
  • Maintaining the bed and banks of the watercourse and for clearing debris that could cause an obstruction on their land or by being washed downstream.
  • Keeping structures such as culverts, weirs and gates clear of debris.
  • Protecting the property from seepage through banks.
  • Not using the watercourse for the disposal of any form of garden or other waste.
  • Notifying the Environment Agency and the relevant risk management authority where works are planned to a structure that acts as an obstruction to a watercourse.

Risk management authorities have powers over and responsibilities for watercourse management. These include:

Works to ordinary watercourses other than cleaning and routine maintenance must be approved by the Lead Local Flood Authority. They may also require planning consent from the local authority, who will consult with the Environment Agency.

The Lead Local Flood Authority has powers to enforce riparian responsibilities and can serve notice on owners and carry out works themselves if watercourses become blocked resulting in a flood risk or a health hazard.

It may be necessary to obtain a licence from the Environment Agency to abstract water from or impound water on a watercourse.

Internal Drainage Boards (IDBs) are local public bodies established in areas of special drainage need to manage flood risk and water levels on behalf of their community.

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