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Riparian Rights in Michigan

What Are Your Rights as a Riparian Landowner?

Even though a riparian landowner does not “own the water,”1 he or she has the absolute right to access the water—by boat or on foot—from anywhere their property touches the lake waters.2 Such landowners have the right to make reasonable use of the entire surface and sub-surface of the lake. In addition to using the surface of the water for activities such as boating, swimming, and fishing, riparian landowners enjoy certain exclusive rights like:

  1. The right to erect and maintain docks along the owner’s shore.
  2. The right to anchor boats permanently off the owner’s shore.3

As stated above, the land must actually touch the water to be considered a riparian land. However, if the only land separating the property from the water’s edge is a roadway, then the land across the road from the water generally enjoys the same riparian rights as it would if the land was touching the water. This rule applies to public highways and roads.

So, what if more than one parcel of land abuts the same waterbody? Where there are several riparian landowners on an inland lake, they may use the surface of the whole lake for boating, swimming, fishing, and other similar riparian rights, as long as they do not interfere with the reasonable use of the waters by other riparian owners.

What Determines Whether You are Using the Water Reasonably?

The “reasonable use” of water depends on the facts of each case. Reasonableness is evaluated based on the following three-pronged test that courts apply:

  • First, the court will give attention to the size, character and natural state of the waterbody.
  • Second, it will consider the type and purpose of the uses proposed and their effect on the water course.
  • Finally, the benefit of the proposed use is balanced with the injury to other riparian owners.4

What Are Your Rights as a Nonriparian Landowner?

As stated earlier, only riparian owners, and owners of land separated from the water’s edge only by a public road, enjoy riparian rights. Nevertheless, a member of the public or a nonriparian landowner who “gains access” to navigable water has the right to use the surface of the water in a reasonable manner for activities like:

  1. Swimming
  2. Boating
  3. Fishing
  4. Anchoring a boat temporarily5

With that being said, you may be wondering what is a “navigable” waterbody and how you can, as a member of the public, “gain access” to such waterbody.

More information

Michigan Property Law, Easements and Access to the Water

Michigan Water Rights

Who Owns the Land Under the Water in Michigan?

Ways to Access a Michigan Lake, River or Other Waterbody

How to Gain Access to Water Using an Easement in Michigan

How to Create an Easement in Michigan


1NeBoShone Ass’n v State Tax Comm, 58 Mich. App. 324, 333 (1975).
2Rice v Naimish, 8 Mich. App. 698, 703 (1967).
3Thies v. Howland, 424 Mich. 282, 288 (1985).
4W. Mich. Dock & Mkt. Corp. v. Lakeland Invs., 210 Mich. App. 505, 513 (1995).
5Thies v. Howland, 424 Mich. 282, 288 (1985).