Riparian Rights in Artificial Lakes
The rights of owners adjoining artificially created bodies of water vary greatly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. These cases often turn on subtle factual distinctions, including the original source of the water. A recent Michigan case rejected an abutting upland owner who claimed riparian rights in an artificially created lake “that was created by modifying a natural watercourse.” Lake Adrian Developers LLC v. City of Adrian, No. 322511 (Mich. Ct. of App. Dec. 17, 2015).
In 1941, the City of Adrian owned the area and created the artificial lake (Lake Adrian) to serve as a municipal water supply by damming Wolf Creek, a natural waterway. Lake Adrian Developers purchased its upland holdings after Lake Adrian was created. The City recently granted oil and gas exploration rights in the bed of Lake Adrian to a third party. Lake Adrian Developers claimed a share of the royalty payments flowing from riparian rights.
In denying the claim, the Court reiterated Michigan’s “common-law rule … that riparian rights simply do not attach to an artificial watercourse.” Plaintiff had argued that an earlier case implied a common owner of a natural watercourse might create riparian rights for another common owner by modifying or deepening the watercourse. The Court pointed out that this Plaintiff had never been a common owner of Wolf Creek in its natural state, rendering the earlier reasoning inapposite to the instant case.
It seems like the Court might have decided more than the case required. Riparian rights are typically conceived as rights in the waters themselves, as opposed to the lands underwater. In City of Adrian, Plaintiff did not appear to contest the City’s ownership of the underwater land. The Court seems to accept Plaintiff’s notion that ownership of riparian rights (if they existed) would entitle it to share in the royalty payments, but it is hard to see why.