Saturday, April 27, 2013


By Julie Rahm

When I visit the Bean for morning coffee, I often hear conversation about riparian rights. As you may know, North Carolina water law is based on the "riparian rights" concept. Riparian means “of, on or relating to the banks of a natural course of water.” In North Carolina, a riparian owner is “entitled to the natural flow of a stream running through or along his land in its accustomed channel, undiminished in quantity and unimpaired in quality, except as may be occasioned by reasonable use of the water by other like owners.” Most disagreement lies in the definition of “reasonable use”.
"Reasonable use" means that each riparian owner can take, use, and discharge surface water so long as that use does not excessively diminish the quality or quantity of the water that flows to other riparian owners. All of the riparian landowners have equal riparian rights, and no one owner can unreasonably interfere with the reasonable uses of the others. A riparian owner who uses so much water that it impairs the reasonable uses of the other owners can be sued by the affected owners for damages. And, an injunction can be obtained to stop the infringing use. All customary household uses are presumptively reasonable. Agricultural and industrial uses are only reasonable if they do not cause unreasonable adverse effects for other riparian owners.
Questions often arise concerning the ownership of the submerged lands. All land under saltwater bodies, lands subject to the ebb and flow of the tide, and land under water that is subject to the influx of saltwater is owned by the State of North Carolina, "in trust", for the public. Furthermore, riparian owners do not actually own the water itself. All surface and ground waters are legally "waters of the State”. The water, plus the fish and other aquatic life belongs to the State.
And, the public does not have rights to travel over private property to obtain access to waters that the public has a right to use. Under traditional riparian law, the public had no right to use the dry sand above the high tide mark on coastal beaches. By custom, however, the public has long been allowed to use the dry sand between the dunes and ocean in North Carolina. With increasing development and public use of beaches, conflicts have arisen when property owners have tried to exclude the public from the dry sand. Courts and legislatures have used various legal approaches to grant the public a formal right to use the dry sand portion of beaches when private property owners have sought to prevent such use.
So, my point this week is that we are all downstream of one another. You have personal “riparian rights”, or boundaries, to apply in the flow of your relationships. When you exercise your personal “riparian rights” by maintaining strong boundaries, what others say and do has no adverse effect on you. To strengthen your personal “riparian rights”, visit me online at 

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