Water Rights and Docks: Everything You Need To Know

Water Rights and Docks: Everything You Need To Know

Owning a waterfront property like a lake or beach house can come with specific stipulations to abide by. As the landowner, you may consider incorporating a dock to ease access to water recreation.

While enjoying the water nearby should be straightforward and entertaining, there’s a possibility that local laws and regulations dictate how you approach using the water source in the first place.

To help clear up potential confusion, here is everything you need to know about water rights and docks.

What Are Water Rights and How Do They Work?

Water rights refer to the regulations in place when accessing, using, and diverting water from adjacent shoreline sources near a residential or other private property. These laws differ nationwide, so it's essential to keep your municipality in mind when noticing discrepancies.

Water rights laws can limit a holder from using water how they wish—for example, when selling the water in their direct access or diverting it for commercial purposes.

What Systems Are in Practice When Determining Water Rights?

As mentioned previously, regulations may vary between general areas, municipalities, and states. For instance, it’s standard in the western part of the US to grant water rights based on the prior appropriation doctrine.

What Is the Prior-Appropriation Doctrine?

The prior-appropriation doctrine determines water rights by priority of beneficial use. This would mean that the first individual to use the water for a purpose would be eligible to acquire rights to that source. In the event of a water shortage, the prior appropriation would apply to the landowner with the oldest permit.

Property owners can sell their rights to water sources separately from their land; however, they can lose access to the source if they're not using the water.

What Is the Riparian Doctrine?

On the other hand, the eastern part of the US relies on the riparian doctrine. This law dictates ownership of a water source to the individual whose property borders the waterfront. Riparian owners can make reasonable use of the water source as long it doesn’t interfere with the rights of neighboring properties.

What Are Different Types of Water Rights?

While prior-appropriation and riparian water rights are among the main types of regulations, there are ten other variations of law dictating water usage.


Non-riparian water rights cover the property owner’s non-exclusive access to their land’s adjacent bodies of water. Waterfronts often see limited access in towns, cities, and municipalities, hindering access to other individuals.

A landowner with non-riparian rights will often have a community pier on their property, promoting public access to the water.


Hybrid water rights are a combination of prior-appropriation and riparian law. This doctrine's specific details vary, making it standard in states that experience water shortages like Oklahoma, Texas, and California.

Absolute Dominion

Absolute dominion regulations grant property owners unrestricted access to groundwater sources used for agriculture and irrigation.


The correlative doctrine classifies property owners sharing water sources with others to reasonably use resources together rather than helping themselves to excessive amounts.


Community water law allows those residing near waterfronts to have priority use of that water source over appropriators.


Littoral rights refer to the land-based rights to lakes, ponds, and other non-flowing, navigable water sources. The doctrine grants property owners the ability to use adjacent water on their land within reason and transfer from owner to owner with every property sale.

Navigable Servitude

A water source with navigable servitude enables the federal government to regulate waterways for commercial purposes. Freight ships, luxury boats, and other types of recreational craft may be eligible for these rights.


Overlying rights are similar to correlative water law when regulating groundwater use. However, the overlying rights holder gets priority over the appropriator in transporting water to outside vessels.

Public Trust

A public trust doctrine in place refers to the city or municipality's ownership of a water source. The city is responsible for establishing a standard on waters used for recreation.

Right to Clean Water

These rights grant responsibility to local government to protect public downstream water sources and maintain high quality for survival purposes.

How Might Water Rights Affect Dock Installation?

Most homes and landowners have riparian rights regarding adjacent water sources. However, there may be discrepancies between states.

Michigan Dock Rights

The type of rights you have over a water source dictates the installation and placement of a dock on your property. If the water is navigable and you have riparian rights to that area, you can install a structure and permanently anchor watercraft to your riparian bottomlands.

What Are Riparian Bottomlands?

Riparian bottomlands are adjacent submerged territories to your property. Bottomland ownership boundaries can divide among multiple owners, so it helps to survey the property to know where land limits are and avoid trespassing on your neighbor’s land.

Florida Dock Rights

In Florida, riparian rights can refer to fishing, bathing, boating, and other defined activities stated by local law. Doctrines also allow the right to enter and exit a waterfront property to those who own the land by installing a dock.

The local, state, and federal government regulate the measurement of the dock to maintain the environment and do not grant Florida property owners the right to submerged territory.

General dock regulations often require a permit before installation. Other standard requirements are as follows:

  • The dock maintains areas of 8 feet or shorter at all times.
  • You are not to use the dock as a marina.
  • The dock should promote water flow underneath it without obstacles.
  • The dock should not be a safety, health, or navigation hazard.

As a guide explaining everything you need to know on water rights and docks, it’s worth noting that regulations can differ depending on your area. Due to the specificity of water rights to states, it would help to consult state and local regulations to determine what you can and can’t do with neighboring water sources.

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Water Rights and Docks: Everything You Need To Know

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