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Riparian Rights and Environmental Conservation:  Balancing Property Ownership and Water Preservation in Florida

Most of Florida is surrounded by water: coastlines, rivers, streams, lakes, and waterways.  A common dispute among owners of waterfront property is what is known as riparian rights.  In Florida, most riparian disputes involve either the right to view, encroachment, or access disputes.

Riparian is a system for allocating water among those who possess land along its path.  These include the rights of ingress, egress, docking, boating, bathing, fishing, and even the right to an unobstructed view of the water.  In other words, riparian rights are rights to use the water and nothing more.  They are merely a preferred right of purchase and do not convey any title.

Riparian rights law is a unique subset of real estate law and presents a diverse set of challenges to be addressed in each case.

Understanding Riparian Property Rights

The concept of riparian rights dates back centuries ago in England, where the title to navigate tidelands was held by the king in the trust of the public.  When the colonies rebelled against England and became sovereign, each new state acquired title to the submerged lands of navigable waters within their borders.  Other states, including Florida, acquired similar rights when they joined the Union via the Equal Footing Doctrine.  The rights of the public to use navigable waters evolved into the public trust doctrine.

As the population of Florida continues to rise dramatically, the state must also have enough clean water for both people and nature.  Variations in either annual rainfall or temperatures could pose risks to the state’s water resources.

Because no one can predict the future, Florida has developed an approach to water management, unlike other states around it.  The Florida Water Resources Act of 1972 provides five regional Water Management Districts (WMDs) to implement water use permits.  Diversion of surface water is limited to reasonable and beneficial use.  Permit rules between WMDs vary and in some cases, metering of groundwater withdrawals may be required.

The Importance of Environmental Conservation

The Florida state government can only do so much to keep our waterways clean.  Everyone that lives in or visits our state should do their part in protecting our environment.  Practicing environmental conservation now means that we will safeguard our ecosystem for future generations to enjoy.  A healthy ecosystem brings economic stability, promotes biodiversity, and provides better health for all of our inhabitants. 

Balancing Property Ownership and Conservation

Waterfront property is quite desirable, especially in Florida.  These waters provide valuable ecosystem services such as food, drinking water, and recreation.  However, shoreline development can degrade riparian habitats and water ecosystems.  Property owners should prevent pollution in and around the water and utilize efficient landscaping.  Use fertilizer sparingly, and have septic tanks inspected every two to three years.  Boaters should always properly dispose of sewage, hazardous waste, fishing line, and trash.

Legal Considerations for Riparian Development

The buffer zones surrounding riparian areas are often the last defense for reducing the adverse impacts sustained by a watershed where development, farming, or other disturbances have caused accelerated runoff, sediment, pollutant transport, and losses due to erosion.  These areas furnish increasingly critical habitats for wildlife and fisheries resources in urbanizing areas.  While riparian rights are firmly established in both common law and statutory law in Florida and will continue to be legally protected, the extent of that protection could be threatened if our environment is further harmed by future development.

The Future of Riparian Rights and Environmental Protection

Florida has to balance the demand for private waterfront development with the need to provide public access to these bodies of water, all while preserving the environment for future generations.  As the population in Florida continues to grow, and tourism steadily rises, riparian rights in the sunshine state will be far from certain.  Unless we all can do our part to conserve water and keep our waterways clean, the definition and scope of riparian rights will be further refined and clarified by both the Florida legislature and the court system.

What are Your Riparian Rights?

I’m Rob Robinson and riparian rights can be complex and involves a wide range of case law, literature and guidelines, and recommendations from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP).  Establishing riparian lines is not a simple concept and they do not necessarily extend into the waters, nor do riparian rights extend at right angles to the shorelines in all cases.

If you are having riparian rights issues or questions, I am here to help.  I am a 5th generation Floridian who loves the outdoors and being on the water.  I understand how important riparian rights can be and how confusing these rights can be.  Whether you are having issues due to a neighbor or the FDEP, I can help make sense of your concerns.

Please contact my office for guidance on how to handle a problem that involves riparian rights in Florida.

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