What is littoral land?

Littoral land (pronounced: lit-tr-uhl) is defined as land located next to a pooled body of water, such as a lake, ocean or sea. Littoral land differs from riparian land, which borders a flowing water source like a river or stream.

Littoral land is also commonly referred to as “beachfront” property, while riparian land is called “riverfront” property. Both types of land tend to be more expensive due to their proximity to the water and are sought after by developers for housing and hotels.

Differences between littoral and riparian water rights

Water in its natural state is considered land since it is part of the material of the earth. While water is real estate, the right to use water is an appurtenant (incidental) right to the ownership of real estate

Littoral rights pertain to property and landowners whose land borders lakes, oceans, seas or large bays. Owners of property abutting one of those bodies of water have an unrestricted right to use the water but own the land only to the median high-water mark, which is the limit of the body of water during high tide. The government owns the land beyond the median high-water mark.

For an example, consider a homeowner who sells their ocean front property. The new owner gains the littoral rights and the use of the water, while the seller relinquishes their rights.

Riparian rights apply to landowners whose property is abutted along a river or stream. Each riparian landowner is entitled to a reasonable use of the natural flow of stream water running through or adjacent to their land. However, the quantity of water withdrawn is subject to an upstream riparian landowner’s priority right to first withdraw water for reasonable use on their upstream riparian land.

Additionally, a riparian landowner cannot divert stream water to nonriparian lands, even if they are entitled to use the water on their riparian land, since they are subject to the rules of percolation within the watershed. The landowner’s riparian right to use the surface water is appurtenant to the land bordering the stream, not other lands not bordering the stream.

All water in the state of California belongs to the people based on a public trust doctrine. Riparian, appropriation and prescriptive rights are subject to the state’s interest in conserving and regulating water use.

Similar terms

Prescriptive right is defined as the right to use water established by appropriating nonsurplus water openly and adversely for an uninterrupted period of five years without documentation of a legal right.

Appurtenant rights refer to incidental property rights which are not located on a parcel of real estate nor reflected on its title, including the right of ingress and egress across adjoining properties.

History behind the word

Since the 1650s, littoral has been defined as “pertaining to the seashore.” The word is originally from the Latin word littoralis meaning “of or belonging to the seashore,” and from litus meaning “seashore, coast, seaside, beach, strand.”