River and Lake Boundaries

Surveying Water Boundaries - Second Edition

By James A. Simpson, PE and LS



Surveying and the Law cannot be separated. An owner’s title to land along a river or lake is dependent upon the law. These same owners have rights which are also defined by the law-- in water boundary work we use the term “riparian rights”.  There are two kinds of riparian rights: The rights to the water itself and the rights incident to the land. Those incident rights may include ownership of, or use of, the bed of the water body or the ownership of land exposed by the action of the flowing water.


The boundaries of riparian land are determined according to the law, including statute law, case law and, sometimes, administrative law.

Meander MonumentsThe rectangular system of surveying (also called public land surveys) is considered briefly—mainly as to its application to riparian property. Meander lines and meandering  is discussed and illustrated.


Meander Corner monuments, abbreviated  MCs, were set at each point where a  section line intersected a meanderable river or lake.


Because case law is the basis for surveys of water boundaries the following law cases are analyzed and illustrated:


  • First National Bank of Decatur v. United States
  • United States v. Cowlishaw et al.
  • Whitaker v. McBride
  • Weaver v. Knudson


Of particular interest in the illustration of these cases is that the published cases do not ordinarily include a map or even a sketch in the way of illustration. The reader must therefore, try to visualize the situation on the ground from the judge’s summary of the facts. One of the main advantages of study using River & Lake Boundaries is that old maps have been reproduced so as to show the physical relationships of the land boundaries to the water. A proper understanding of the cases depends on a correct understanding of the facts on the ground