Advice on watercourse management in England

A short guide to the common queries we receive regarding watercourses and their management. We hope it is of assistance, if you have a further question please contact us.

Owning and managing a watercourse
Who is responsible for a watercourse?
Main rivers
Ordinary watercourses
Am I at risk of flooding?
Investigating flooding
Highways drainage
Pipes, sewerage and water supply

Owning and managing a watercourse

If you own land adjoining a watercourse, you are in legal terms a ‘riparian owner’, and have certain rights and responsibilities.

For England these are set out in the Environment Agency’s online guide, ‘Owning a Watercourse’.

You can find equivalent information for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland via links from this guide.

Who is responsible for my watercourse?

There is no single organisation that oversees the management of all watercourses, or all forms of flooding. Different organisations and landowners have roles depending on the circumstances.

Northamptonshire County Council’s Flood Toolkit has a useful overview of the roles and responsibilities in different circumstances.

An important distinction in England and Wales is whether a watercourse is designated as a ‘main river’.

Main rivers

Main rivers are usually larger rivers and streams that have been legally designated as such, and shown on the Main River Map.

In England the Environment Agency carries out maintenance, improvement or construction work on main rivers to manage flood risk and has consenting and enforcement powers for the same purpose. Please contact the Environment Agency for further assistance regarding main rivers in England. You can search to find out if a watercourse is a main river in England using this map on the Environment Agency’s website.

In Wales, Natural Resources Wales has the equivalent role. You can see the main rivers in Wales using this map on Natural Resources Wales’ website.

Other watercourses are termed ‘ordinary watercourses’.

Ordinary watercourses

Ordinary watercourses are rivers and streams that are not designated as ‘main river’.

Lead local flood authorities have consenting and enforcement powers for ordinary watercourses unless the watercourse is within an internal drainage district managed by an internal drainage board (IDB). District councils, unitary authorities, and internal drainage boards can carry out flood risk management work on ordinary watercourses in their area.

You can find your local authority on GOV.UK

Am I at risk of flooding?

For England, if you visit, you can:

  • find out about your area’s risk of flooding from rivers, the sea and surface water,
  • view your area’s flood risk maps,
  • check whether there are any current flood warnings and alerts in place,
  • check current river and sea levels, and
  • look at the flood forecast for the next five days.

You can also find equivalent information for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland from this link.

Investigating flooding

Lead local flood authorities have a power to investigate flooding issues.

Most only investigate where there is flooding to the interior of a property (not gardens, driveways or outbuildings etc). The environmental health department of a local authority have other powers of investigation if there is a potential environmental health risk.

The Environment Agency should be contacted in cases of suspected pollution.

There is information on getting help during a flood on GOV.UK

Highways drainage

Typically, highways drainage may either be the responsibility of the highways authority (usually the local authority), or the owner of adjacent land.

Motorways and major roads are managed by Highways England. For other roads the highway authority is usually the county council or unitary authority for a particular area. Transport for London is the highways authority in the Greater London area.

Pipes sewerage and water supply

Pipes can be difficult to trace if not marked on property deeds and can be for water supply, sewerage, watercourses or even historic field drainage or industrial purposes. Occupiers can begin by investigating with the water & sewerage company and/or lead local flood authority for the area.

ADA does not deal with issues relating to sewerage and water supply.

Water UK can help you find your water supplier and sewerage undertaker.

Note that in some areas the water supplier can be different to the sewerage undertaker.

If you have a complaint about a water company please see advice from the Consumer Council for Water.


The majority of canals in England are managed by the Canal & Rivers Trust. The Norfolk Broads’ navigations are managed by the Broads Authority.

Other navigation authorities can be found via the Inland Waterways Association


There is useful advice on how to resolve neighbour disputes on GOV.UK

First-tier Tribunal (Property Chamber) Agricultural Land and Drainage can arbitrate where there are land drainage or watercourse maintenance disputes between landowners or occupiers.


Complaints regarding the operations of the Environment Agency, a local authority or internal drainage board can be made to the Local Government & Social Care Ombudsman.

The Ombudsman can be contacted once the respective authority’s complaints procedure has been exhausted where the matter has not been satisfactorily resolved.