Synopsis of Rule of Law. In determining rights to use a body of water, the threshold question is whether the watercourse is considered “navigable”, because owners cannot prohibit free access to “navigable” watercourses. The determination of whether a watercourse is navigable depends on the presence or absence of tidal ebb and flow of water and whether the water is used like a public highway of commerce. If a watercourse is deemed non-navigable, courts may adopt either the restrictive “common law” (aka “exclusive dominion”) rule, which provides that an owner can only enjoy the portion of water he owns, or the “civil law” (aka “free access”) rule, which provides that an owner may enjoy the entire body of water.
Issue. Does the owner of a part of the bed of a non-navigable lake have the legal right to use and enjoy the entire lake under Iowa law?
No. The Iowa Supreme Court held that an owner of a part of a bed of a non-navigable lake may only use and enjoy the part of the lake covering the lake bed described in his deed. The threshold question was whether the lake was considered “navigable”, because owners cannot prohibit free access to “navigable” watercourses. The determination of whether a watercourse is navigable depends on the presence or absence of tidal ebb and flow of water and whether the water is used like a public highway of commerce. Because the lake at issue was landlocked and used primarily for recreational purpose, not for travel, the court found it was non-navigable. The court then adopted the “common law rule” in holding that owners of part of a bed under a non-navigable body of water are limited to using only that part of the lake above their deeded property. The court reasoned that the common law rule recognizes the legal significance of property boundaries and protects interests of owners when neighbors are unable to coexist cooperatively. Judge Cady dissented, rejecting the common law rule and favoring instead the “civil law rule” also known as the “free access rule”, which recognizes that it can be very difficult and impractical to establish and obey definite property lines in bodies of water.
Discussion. This case points out the difference between the “common law rule” and the “civil law rule” for determining water use issues for non-navigable bodies of water.