When it comes to Miochigan water rights, we begin with first principles. Laws regarding the allocation of water in the United States are not uniform. Broadly speaking, there are two water allocation doctrines used.
Most western states follow what is known as the prior appropriation doctrine. In a nutshell, this doctrine gives property rights to whoever puts water to beneficial use first. In contrast, most eastern states follow the riparian doctrine, influenced by English law, which allows you to use a waterbody based on the location of the land. The focus of this page is on riparian doctrine, which is the doctrine that applies in Michigan.
To better understand your right to use a lake, river, pond, stream, or any other waterbody, it is important to know what “riparian” land means. Strictly speaking, a “riparian” land is one that includes or touches a river or any natural watercourse. However, courts tend to use that term to also describe land that includes or touches a lake or sea.1 Therefore, if the land you own or wish to buy includes or touches a waterbody, it is considered a “riparian land.” Conversely, if the land you own or wish to own does not include or touch any waterbody, it is deemed and will be referred to on this website as “nonriparian land.”
In Michigan, there are two classes of natural waters: Great Lakes and inland waters. Ownership rights as to inland waters are subject to the same rules of law—regardless of their size and whether they were rivers, lakes, or ponds.2
A common question that is often asked about Michigan water rights is “Who Owns the Land Under the Water in Michigan?”
1McCardel v. Smolen, 273 N.W.2d 3, 5 (Mich. 1978); Glass v. Goeckel, 473 Mich. 667, 672 n.1 (2005).
2Hall v. Wantz, 336 Mich. 112, 116 (1953).
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