National Rivers Website, Rivers of Missouri:
owns the rivers in Missouri?
frequently-asked questions about river law in Missouri,
regarding river ownership, use, access, and conservation.
Question: I recently encountered a situation
where . . .
Answer: The situation you encountered is typical
of . . .
Question: I am confused about . . .
Answer: The reason for that is . . .
of the relationship of federal and state law regarding
The section on National
River Law discusses river ownership, use, and
conservation law throughout the United States. Following is
a review of what individual states can and cannot lawfully
do with the rivers within their borders.
- The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that rivers that
are navigable, for title purposes, are owned by the states,
"held in trust" for the public. This applies in
all fifty states, under the "Equal Footing Doctrine."
- Rivers that do meet the federal test are
automatically navigable, and therefore owned by the state.
No court or government agency has to designate them as such.
- The federal test of navigability is not a technical
test. There are no measurements of river width, depth, flow,
or steepness involved. The test is simply whether the river
is usable as a route by the public, even in small craft such
as canoes, kayaks, and rafts. Such a river is legally
navigable even if it contains big rapids, waterfalls, and
other obstructions at which boaters get out, walk around,
then re-enter the water.
- The states own these rivers up to the "ordinary
high water mark." This is the mark that people can
actually see on the ground, where the high water has left
debris, sand, and gravel during its ordinary annual cycle.
(Not during unusual flooding.) It is not a theoretical line
requiring engineering calculations. Where the river banks
are fairly flat, this mark can be quite a distance from the
edge of the water during medium water flows. There is often
plenty of room for standing, fishing, camping, and other
- States cannot sell or give away these rivers and
lands up to the ordinary high water mark. Under the "Public
Trust Doctrine," they must hold them in perpetuity for
- The three public uses that the courts have
traditionally mentioned are navigation, fishing, and
commerce. But the courts have ruled that any and all
non-destructive activities on these land are legally
protected, including picnics, camping, walking, and other
activities. The public can fish, from the river or from the
shore below the "ordinary high water mark." (Note
that the fish and wildlife are owned by the state in any
case.) The public can walk, roll a baby carriage, and other
activities, according to court decisions.
- States do have authority and latitude in the way
they manage rivers, but their management must protect the
public uses mentioned above. They can (and must) prohibit or
restrict activities that conflict with the Public Trust
Doctrine. "Responsible recreation" must be
allowed, but activities that could be harmful, such as
building fires, leaving trash, and making noise, can legally
be limited, or prohibited, in various areas. Motorized trips
and commercial trips can legally be limited or prohibited by
- State and local restrictions on use of navigable
rivers have to be legitimately related to enhancing public
trust value, not reducing it. Rivers cannot be closed or
partially closed to appease adjacent landowners, or to
appease people who want to dedicate the river to fishing
only, or to make life easier for local law enforcement
- State governments (through state courts and
legislatures) cannot reduce public rights to navigate and
visit navigable rivers within their borders, but they can
expand those rights, and some states have done so. They can
create a floatage easement, a public right to navigate even
on rivers that might not qualify for state ownership for
some reason, even if it is assumed that the bed and banks of
the river are private land. Note that this floatage easement
is a matter of state law that varies from state to state,
but the question of whether a river is navigable, for title
purposes, and therefore owned by the state, is a matter of
federal law, and does not vary from state to state. Note
that a state floatage easement is something that comes and
goes with the water: When the water is there, people have a
right to be there on it, and when it dries up, people have
no right to be there. But rivers that are navigable for
title purposes are public land up to the ordinary high water
mark, so that even when the river runs dry, people still
have the right to walk along the bed of the river.
- Only federal courts can modify the test of
standards that make a river navigable for title purposes.
States cannot create their own standards, either narrower or
wider in scope. They cant make definitive rulings
about which rivers are navigable for title purposes, only a
federal court can.
- The situation gets confusing when a state agency or
commission holds hearings about navigability and public use
of rivers. Landowners, sheriffs, and other people tend to
think that such an agency or commission can create state
standards that determine which rivers are public and which
are private. But these are matters of federal law which
state agencies cannot change.
- State agencies should make provisional
determinations that various rivers meet the federal test of
navigability for title purposes. These provisional
determinations should be based simply on the rivers'
usability by canoes, kayaks, and rafts. They should then
proceed to the question of how to manage navigation and
other public uses of the river. In these days of government
cut-backs, the agency should look for solutions that use
existing enforcement agencies rather than setting up new
ones. Littering, illegal fires, offensive behavior,
trespassing on private land, and numerous other offenses are
all covered by existing laws, and offenders can be cited by
the local police, sheriff's office or state police.
post your question about river law in Missouri:
Click here to go to
Rendezvous--State River News, and post your question
under Missouri River Law. The webmaster will subsequently ask
a qualified attorney to answer your question, and will add
the question and the answer to the above list.
The National Rivers
Website and the Rivers of Missouri section are
made possible by the generosity of the members of the
National Organization for Rivers (NORS.) To start or extend
your membership, go to
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