Water has been a natural boundary for land throughout human history. Mexico and Texas fought for the Rio Grande River area. The Nueces River was eventually proclaimed the winner. The Mississippi River is part of the border of ten states. Exodus even mentions God telling Moses, “I will set your bounds from Red Sea to the sea of Philistines and from the desert to the river.” John O’Donohue, a poet, observed that a river is “carried by its own unfolding.” The same goes for ocean shorelines. These changes can be gradual or imperceptible. Sometimes they are sudden. These changes can affect property rights in real-estate.
Land that is bordered by water falls under one of the following categories. The term “riparian” refers to “belonging or related to the bank or stream”. A “riparian owner”, is someone whose land is bordered by a river. Similar to “riparian owner”, the term “littoral” refers to land that is bound by the shore of an ocean or sea.
If the call in a deed is to an unnavigable stream or riparian tract, the boundary is the centre or “thread” thereof, unless the deed states otherwise. A description of a “meanderline” is not sufficient to show such intent, unless it is stated in the language of deed.
The State of Texas owns navigable streams. The boundary of a navigable stream/river is to the point at the shore, known as the “gradient border.” Grants affected by the 1929 “Small Bill” are not considered “gradient boundaries”. A navigable river has a minimum width of 30 feet, from the mouth to the mouth.
Riparian Tracts’ Boundaries are changing due to erosion, accretion and reliction
When the stream slowly and imperceptibly erodes the land, it is called erosion. Accretion occurs when solid material, such as sand or mud (alluvion), is deposited, adding to land. Riparian owners lose their land when the land is lost to erosion. The same applies to riparian owners who gain land as it grows through accretion.
When the water submerges, called “reliction” or “dereliction”, it permanently exposes previously submerged land. The riparian owner then gains the newly exposed land. The boundary is now in line with the water body.
A boundary is a body or water that is slowly and imperceptibly altered or shifted by erosion, reliction or accretion.
The navigability of a stream will determine the ownership of an island. It is the state’s property if the stream is navigable. Non-navigable streams have a continuation of ownership for the owners of the stream bed. If the middle stream thread crosses an island, the property line crosses the island as well.
These rules are applicable even if erosion, accretion or reliction has been caused by man. This rule does not apply to accretion that is caused by the owner of the riparian. An owner cannot artificially raise submerged land above the surface to claim his land. This exception is sometimes called the “landfill principle”. The riparian owner has the right to any accretion of or reliction if a dam is built upstream.
There are other exceptions to this rule. If the property description states that the boundary is an object required at a river, the landmark is the object. The stream does not move the boundary, but the boundary is fixed to it.
It is important that title does not change due to seasonal or temporary changes, nor the rising or falling of the stream. The change must be permanent.
Boundaries are not affected by Subsidence and Avulsion on Riparian Tracts
However, streams and rivers can sometimes change their course quickly. A river can change its course suddenly and perceptibly, removing or depositing soil in the process. This is known as “avulsion.” This means that the boundaries of the land are not affected by the river’s movement.
It depends on whether there is a gradual or imperceptible change. It can be gradual or imperceptible if a person notices that something is changing/moving from time to another. It is sudden and perceptible if it can be detected.
This rule is not absolute. The state owns the new bed if a navigable stream leaves the existing bed. The state does not own the riverbed created by the avulsion, but the island is the property of its original owner. All accretions to an island belong to its owner.
Subsidence is the term for sinking land. It has no effect on the boundaries of the earth, regardless of how gradual or sudden the change.
A simplified definition of “shoreline” in relation to littoral tracts is the average daily high water level. The bed is not included in a call to the shoreline of a lake. Property that borders the Gulf of Mexico, bays or tidal water is typically owned by the littoral owner. Land seaward of the shoreline are covered by “navigable water” and the State of Texas.
Littoral Tracts’ Erosion and Accretion Change Boundaries
Like riparian owners and the risk of the shoreline moving over time, each owner is responsible.
The rule of thumb is that the owner gradually acquires or loses title, or imperceptibly adds to or takes from the shoreline. This means that if the shoreline moves inwardly, the littoral owners lose that land. If the shoreline moves to the seaward, the littoral owners’ property grows.
The property owner is responsible for proving that the property has accreted. The state assumes that the land is still in its title, unless it makes a showing. The landfill rule is applicable, as with accretion onto riparian tracts. The landowner may not build the land intentionally and claim the dry land as hers.
Subsidence on Littoral Tracts does not change Boundaries
The boundaries of the land are not affected by subsidence on riparian tracts.
Influence on Mineral Ownership
Most cases would not require litigation to determine the exact boundaries of land that borders streams and rivers.
Many of these laws are based on boundary disputes over mineral rights. Both the mineral estates and the surface are subject to the rules concerning erosion, subsidence, reliction, reliction and accretion.
Other matters not addressed
These rules apply to the land and minerals, but not the water. Other rules determine who owns the water. These rules also do not affect the public’s rights to access beaches or navigable waters.