Irrigating with lake water during drought and dry weather

Lakefront property owners have riparian right to “reasonable use” of lake water.

This year’s drought has stressed waterfront landscapes as well as upland areas. Residential lakefront property owners may ask if using lake water to irrigate their lawns is allowable. The answer is yes. Under Michigan riparian doctrine, surface water may be extracted by a lakefront property owner to irrigate their parcel that adjoins the lake. An owner of a property that physically touches an inland lake (or stream) is referred to as a “riparian.”

Under Michigan’s Riparian Doctrine of reasonable use, a lake riparian has a qualified (not absolute) right to the reasonable use of the water adjacent to his or her property. The term “reasonable” is defined in the courts; however irrigating lawns with lake water would most likely be considered a reasonable use due to the relatively small amount of water used. An owner of agricultural land adjacent to a lake or stream is also a riparian and has a qualified right to the reasonable use of the water adjacent to his or her property. However, large quantity users must complete Michigan’s Water Withdrawal Assessment Process when planning for a new large quantity withdrawal (more than than 100,000 gallons per day) directly from surface water or groundwater.

It is important to note that riparian rights cannot be sold or given away. For example, a riparian cannot allow lake water to be pumped to a parcel that does not physically touch the lake (e.g. a neighboring back lot or field). This holds true even if the back lot parcel or field was once part of the current riparian parcel. Over the years many lakefront lots have been divided, or severed, away from upland areas. Once the property has been severed, the riparian right to the lake water has been lost to the parcel that no longer touches the lake.

Lakefront property owners who irrigate from their lake should take steps to conserve water by managing irrigation systems for efficient coverage and timely use. Sprinkler systems that direct water onto impervious surfaces, such as roads and driveways, waste both water and energy and should be redirected. Excess watering can create overland movement of water towards the lake, carrying pollutants such as fertilizers, pesticides, pet waste and grass clippings. Calculating the proper amount of fertilizer to use on lawns reduces costs and protects lake water quality. A natural shoreline and buffer strip of native shoreline plants can also reduce the movement of pollutants into the lake.

For an informational brochure on riparian rights in Michigan, please contact the Michigan Lake & Stream Associations at 989-831-5100.

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