Artificial Lakes Create Difficulties for Land Surveyors involved in Riparian Disputes -
Updated: Feb 9
When surveying or working on or near artificial bodies of water, it is important to remember that many of the ‘classic’ rules relating to natural watercourses may not be applicable. Here are three basic premises to keep in mind when dealing with natural waters that have been engineered or modified, or artificial bodies of water on what was formerly privately-owned upland.
1. Incidental rights may not exist in the traditional form unless negotiated between lake owner and the littoral adjoiner. In Roberson v. Red Bluff Water & Power District: 142 S.W.2d 248; 1940 Tex. App. The Texas court observes: “The court stated several conclusions of law to the effect that Section 16 has no riparian or littoral rights in law; that Roberson and Stratton had no right to go upon the property of the Water Company without permission; that the Company had the right to fence its property on Section 16 and erect all improvements incident thereto and to adopt and promulgate reasonable rules in control of its properties.”
2. Property boundaries may be defined by monuments or by a benchmark elevation. Rules of accretion, erosion and avulsion may not affect boundaries as they would on natural watercourses. In the Texas decision Haby v. Howard: 757 S.W.2d 34 (1988), the court notes: “Haby sued for possession of 1.2383 acres, a narrow strip of land at the waterline of Medina Lake, raises material fact issues as to the meaning of the term “high datum water line” -- whether this meant the 1084 foot natural contour line and not the 1072 foot natural contour line as contended by the movants.”
3. Title to the fee of the lake bed may be privately held rather than remaining in state ownership. Title may be in a single entity or may be a patchwork divided between several parties. Regarding a dispute on Smith Mountain Lake in the Virginia decision Smith Mtn. Lake Yacht Club v. Ramaker: 542 S.E.2d 392 (2001), the court observes: “After the chancellor erroneously concluded that the Commonwealth owns the partially submerged property pursuant to Code § 28.2-1200, he determined that the Ramakers had riparian rights…After observing that the mean low-water mark had not been determined in this case, the chancellor substituted in its place the 795-foot elevation contour for the purpose of fixing the Ramaker's riparian rights…The chancellor's designation of a riparian zone permitting construction of a dock extending from the Ramakers' property is contrary to the law because the dock would have to cross the Yacht Club's partially submerged property to reach the dock's designated terminus point in the water.” The title history of Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee provides another excellent example of multiple discrete tracts existing beneath a lake.
In addition, the New York ruling Southampton v. Heilner: 84 Misc. 2d 318 (1975) describes a private lake that was ‘converted’ into a tidal basin by the construction of an artificial canal. The change in water level and the addition of a tidal influence did not alter the original property titles to the lake bed.