Why can I own land but not bodies of water?

Well? How come I can go out and buy an acre of land, but not an acre of lake? The most helpful answers I could get from my family were “that’s what they decided when they made laws” and “stop acting clever”. I’m genuinely curious and confused, though!

I don’t know the answer to most of your question but I do want to point out that many people own the lakes and ponds that are on their property. Some of the lakes are fairly large too.

Well, I’m not sure of the details of the law, but two possibilities immediately spring to mind.

  • on the practical basis, rivers and lakes used to be important routes of transportation and thus were held in common. Is it legally possible to own part of a road? (Not sure about that one, probably depends on how important a road.)

  • when you own land, the ground involved stays much the same from hour to hour and day to day, though it may change slowly over months and years. A river or small lake, though, is basically just a space, through which different water is always flowing. If what you own is the matter and not the space, then it’ll quickly end up somewhere else.

Just some big WAGs

IANAL, but chrisk’s second WAG makes a lot of sense to me.

Water is not land. This is even more true for moving water – it changes course (resulting in gains and losses when used as borders). I remember learning in junior high that my home state of West Virginia owns the Ohio River to the low-water mark on Ohio’s shore. Even though WV owns it, the boundary can change with time.

You most certainly can own a body of water. Most large farms have at least one pond that would be owned in fee simple by the farm owner. I know of no reason you couldn’t own a larger lake in the same way. The only limitation would be the size of the property you are buying. Even a small lake might cover thousands of acres – rather an expensive proposition.

As to flowing water, say I have a river that bisects my property. I would have title to the land under the water. However, I wouldn’t necessarily have the right to use all that flows over my land in the river bed. How much water I can take, and how my rights to the water compare to my upstream and downstream neighbors is a subject called “Riparian Rights”. It’s quite complicated and varies from state to state.

But anyway, one can most certainly own a body of water. For example, I’m fairly certain that Disney, Inc. holds title to all the real estate under Lake Buena Vista.

Interesting. Kentucky owns (owns is not really the right word, but close enough) the Ohio River to the low-water mark on Ohio’s, Indiana and Illinois’s shore. I would imagine that Virginia originally owned the Ohio River, and when WV and KY were split from her, they inherited her rights to them.

Oh, and IAAL.

Some info. These are mainly for properties bordering bodies of water. I don’t think these rules wouid apply to ponds and lakes completely encompassed within your property.

Riparian Rights


Sorry to triple post, but I keep thinking of different aspects to answer.

Why would you want to by an acre in the middle of a lake? What would you do with it? I suppose I can imagine some situations where there would be a reason to. I don’t want to get too involved in property law, but what you buy when you buy property is “a bundle of rights.” You have the right to use the property, to sell it or leave it to someone and a host of others. The full bundle is called “fee simple absolute”. Your ownership rights extend infinitely up into the sky and down into the earth. You may have heard of “mineral rights”. This is one of the bundle of rights and involves the right to take mineral resources from (or from under) a piece of land.

Sooo, imagine you found out there was a huge oil deposit under the Ol’ Swimming Hole. You could buy the land underneath all that water and thereby acquire ownership of all that petroleum. Or you could just buy the mineral rights. You’d then have the right to remove your oil from the land. Assuming that you could accomplish this task, you could then move to Californ-I-Aye and build yourself a cement pond and help your nephew become a double naught spy.

You don’t really own "land’ either. If there is a landslide and your house and all slides downhill onto the next dudes lot- it’s now on his property. What you really own is a “space” That space may have water on it, or glaciers or mud or dirt.

The thing is- dirt and rocks and stuff usually mostly stay in place. Water (being a 'fluid") moves. So- dudes think that they own the dirt. But they don’t.

Another thing to think about is how you would access an acre of property that is in the middle of a lake. If all of the surrounding area is owned by others, you would have to make arrangements with one of them for the right to access your property. I’m sure this is done fairly often for parcels of land that do not have direct road access.

Fish farming would be one possibility.

Maybe you can’t own water but you can own swamp. My father and his brother bought 80 acres in northwestern Wisconsin early in 1920. The moved up there in late winter to live. When spring came and things thawed out they went out to look at their “farm.” As my dad told it, my uncle jumped out of the car onto the ground and “the whole 80 acres shook.”

The history of the U.S. west is replete with fights over water and it continues today. The novel Centennial, James Michener tells how the English controlled the cattle industry in Colorado by having their representatives lay claim to the sections that contained water. Without water all the other land was useless to anyone else. The movie Chinatown involves the following:

The water in the Colorado River sustains much of the Southwest U.S. and Mexico also lays claim to it. This is but a brief example as to the importance of water.

So water rights are much more involved than those concerning land.