River and Lake Boundaries

Surveying Water Boundaries - Second Edition

By James A. Simpson, PE and LS



The first question to be resolved on any riparian boundary problem – “Is the water body navigable or not navigable?” The reason is that each of the 50 states received a grant of the beds of the navigable waters. Some of the states have passed the ownership of the beds to the adjacent upland owners. Most of the other states have retained that ownership. Where two ownerships meet there is a boundary and that boundary is defined in a number of different ways.


Navigability depends upon various factors. The solution depends on some tests that the courts have devised over the years. There is a test for navigation in admiralty law. There is another test for navigability in interstate commerce and a test for the ownership of the beds of the water bodies, the “State’s waters” test.


 Situations covered include Improvements in aid of navigation, historical use in commerce, fishing and recreational uses, susceptibility to navigation, navigability based on the original General Land Office Surveys and exceptions to state ownership of the beds.


Navigability reports are considered, including the sources of information available.