Solving Stream Problems in your Backyard Series - Who is Responsible for our Streams?

*This is the first post in a continuing series on backyard stream management.*

Through the Cuyahoga Soil & Water Conservation District’s Watershed Program, we are starting a new blog series to discuss problems property owners may face with their back yard stream and resources for finding solutions. Most property owners do not always know what to do with their backyard stream when they notice problems, which in northeast Ohio are primarily related to streambank erosion, stream channel conveyance and loss of riparian/streamside natural buffers. In the upcoming months, we will address these issues in more detail. Today we will start with the basics and discuss who owns and is responsible for streams in Ohio.

If a stream is on your property, you are responsible for any maintenance you want done to the stream. Some communities have ordinances requiring that streamside property owners keep their stream ‘free-flowing’ and clear of blockages, so check with your community to see if there are regulations you should know about as a streamside property owner. The water in the stream is a ‘public good’ and is not considered private property (e.g. people have the right to float on top of the water), but the land beneath the water is private property (e.g. when you stop floating and step onto the land, you are now trespassing). If two property owners own to the edge of a stream, then each actually owns to the center of the stream unless a property deed specifies something else. Also, on large navigable waters, boaters have the right to navigate on the stream, regardless of who owns the land beside or underneath it. For more details, see Ohio Department of Natural Resources Fact Sheet called ‘Who Owns Ohio’s Streams?'.

One other nuance to consider, is that whatever you do to your segment of stream cannot cause harm to property owners’ up or downstream (e.g. if you construct a dam that curtails water flow downstream and unreasonably impacts that property owners use of the water you may have to remove that dam). In many rivers, impeding navigation is not permitted, so check with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to see if any permit is needed, especially if you are considering placing any fill. We will have a blog topic focused on permitting in the coming months.

While municipalities have the authority to improve drainage and clear streams of blockages (e.g. logjams), and some communities assist property owners with clearing obstructions in a stream, there is no one governmental agency assigned that responsibility. So the burden can fall on the property owner to address blockages, although they are not legally responsible to do so unless a court rules that the owner has caused upstream or downstream problems unreasonably (e.g. building a dam that causes a debris blockage that causes upstream problems may necessitate removing the blockage or the dam entirely).

The main takeaway from this introductory article is to check local ordinances and potential state or national permit requirements before undergoing stream maintenance activities as whatever you do on your stream segment could impact upstream and downstream property owners as well as the health of the stream system. Alert professionals quickly if you see a problem starting, as most times that we get calls from landowners, a problem is too far along for a simple/cheap fix and may require costly engineering and restoration.

Upcoming Topics in this Series include:

  • General Stream Morphology
  • Streambank Erosion (suggestions/resources for streambank stabilization)
  • Stream Channel Conveyance (suggestions for best way to remove logs and debris)
  • Importance of Streamside/Riparian Buffers
  • Importance of Floodplains
  • Invasive Plants along Streams
  • Dams / Obstacles to Fish Passage
  • Permitting for Stream Modification Projects
  • Funding for Stream Restoration

Blog Author: Claire Posius, Euclid Creek Watershed Coordinator

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