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Riparian Rights

Riparian rights refers to a landowner’s rights to water on or adjacent to his or her property. When one is a riparian owner, one has certain rights, including the right to swim, boat and fish in and on the waters, to take water for domestic use only, to skate and ride on ice, and to erect private boat docks and similar structures at or near the shore line. Bradley v. County of Jackson, 347 S.W.2d 683, 686 (Mo. 1961).

Generally, in Missouri — and most other states — riparian rights do not attach to artificial bodies of water. Bollinger v. Henry, 375 S.W.2 161, 166 (Mo. 1964). The rationale for this distinction is that, unlike a natural body of water, an artificial body of water is the result of someone’s labor and work, and it would be unfair to grant a property owner rights to an artificial body of water created by someone else.

Based on this distinction, many times when there is a dispute between real estate owners as to the use of a body of water (e.g., lake) it will legally turn on whether the body was artificially created. To complicate matters, and to add more confusion to disputes, there is an “artificial becomes natural” line of cases which maintain that in certain circumstances where the usage of the artificial body of water has long been settled it is appropriate to treat the artifical body as the legal equivalent of a natural one.

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