Water law basics

From: Questions and Answers about Water Laws in Minnesota PDF icon.

Who owns the bed of a lake, marsh, or stream?

When a water basin or watercourse is "navigable" under the federal test, the State of Minnesota owns the bed below the natural ordinary low water level (see: Lamprey v. State, 52 Minn. 1981, 53 NW 1139 [1893]; and United States v. Holt State Bank, 270 U.S. 49 [1926]). The federal test used for navigability is: "when they are used, or are susceptible of being used, in their natural and ordinary condition, as highways for commerce, over which trade or travel are or may be conducted" (see: State v. Longyear Holding Co. 224 Minn 451, 29 NW 2d 657 [1947]). If a court has found that a lake is non-navigable and meandered, the shoreland owners own the bed of a lake in severalty (see: Schmidt v. Marschel., 211 Minn 543, NW 2d 121 [1942]). If a stream is non-navigable but has been meandered, the shoreland owners own to the thread (centerline) of the stream. If a lake or stream is non-navigable and not meandered, ownership of the bed is as indicated on individual property deeds.

Also see: Pardon Me Myth! - Who Owns the Lake Bed? PDF icon.

What are riparian rights?

Riparian rights are property rights arising from owning shoreland. They include the right to wharf out to a navigable depth; to take water for domestic and agricultural purposes; to use land added by accretion or exposed by reliction; to take ice; to fish, boat, hunt, swim; to such other uses as water bodies are normally put (see: Sanborn v. People's Ice Co. 82 Minn 43, 84 NW 641 [1900] and Lamprey v. State, 52 Minn 181, 53 NW 1139 [1883]). The riparian owner has the right to make use of the lake over its entire surface (see: Johnson v. Seifert 257 Minn 159, 100 NW 2d 689 [1960]).

What are riparian duties?

It is the duty of the riparian owners to exercise their rights reasonably, so as not to unreasonably interfere with the riparian rights of others (see: Petraborg v. Zontelli, 217 Minn 536, 15 NW 2d 174 [1944]). They cannot dike off and drain, or fence off, their part of the waterbody (see: Johnson v. Seifert). It is a public nuisance and a misdemeanor to "interfere with, obstruct, or render dangerous for passage waters used by the public" (see: Public Nuisance Law, Minnesota Statute 609.74).

What are public rights?

Where the public is a riparian landowner, such as a public road abutting the water or at a public access, the public has riparian rights (see: Flynn v. Beisel, 257 Minn. 531, 102 N.W .2d 284 [1960].).

Additional information

Minnesota case law has established that a public road abutting a body of water gives the public riparian rights to the water. Riparian rights exist whether or not the lake is navigable or public and regardless of who owns the bed. Riparians are entitled to exercise their rights over the entire surface of the lake. One riparian cannot keep others from using all of the lake. Where access to a "wetland" is available from a public road, Minnesota Statutes Section 103G.235 provides the following: "In order to protect the public health or safety, local units of government may establish by ordinance restrictions upon public access to any wetlands from city, county or township roads which abut wetlands." In all other cases (i.e., state or federal roads abutting "wetlands" or any public road abutting a "public water"), the public has the riparian right of access.

Trespassing on private property

The belief that the state owns a strip of land around all Minnesota lakes for public use is absolutely false. Riparian property (property abutting a lake, river, or wetland) is either privately or publicly owned. The general public can access water bodies or watercourses via public property, but not through private property. Individuals entering private property without permission from the landowner are trespassing and may be prosecuted under the state trespass laws. It is illegal to trespass on private property in order to gain access to a water body or watercourse without first obtaining the verbal or written permission from a landowner.

For more on water law, see: Water Statutes and Rules.