Water Boundaries

Crown Ownership of Beds and Shores

In Alberta, the province owns most of the beds and shores of all naturally occurring lakes, rivers and streams. In addition, the province also owns most of the beds and shores of all permanent and naturally occurring bodies of water. These other bodies of water are primarily permanent wetlands. Section 3 of the Public Lands Act provides the legal mechanism for this ownership.

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The ownership of the beds and shores of a particular body of water is not always obvious, and its determination may require historical research to verify that ownership. Few land titles in Alberta mention the ownership to the bed and shore of bodies of water. More often, the title description is silent to the ownership of beds and shores.

Exceptions to the Crown's Ownership

Some exceptions to the Crown's ownership of bed and shore apply.

  • Former Hudson's Bay Company Lands
    Prior to the confederation of Canada, the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) of fur traders, through a Royal Charter from King Charles II of England, owned by deed what was then called Rupert's Land, which included all the land in the Province of Alberta as we know it today.

    When the HBC surrendered its lands in 1870 to the Dominion of Canada, it did so with some conditions attached, including the retention of a portion of lands for the HBC. These lands included:
    • HBC posts
    • A block of land adjoining each post
    • A grant of land in each township within the lands set out for settlement not exceeding one-twentieth of those lands

    Of these lands, the HBC retained ownership of all lands south of the North Saskatchewan River within all of Section 8 and 3/4 of Section 26 (except the northeast quarter) in every township as it was surveyed. In every surveyed township divisible by five, the HBC retained full ownership to all of Section 26 and all of Section 8.

  • Grant/Title Specifically Includes Bed and Shore
    The description of a grant of land and subsequent titles specifically include the beds and shores of a body of water.
  • Federal Lands
    National Parks, Military Reserves, Indian Reservations, Surrendered Indian Reserves
  • Court-Defined Rights
    Rights to the beds and shores defined by a court of law
  • Non-permanent Wetlands
    In the settled area of Alberta, naturally occurring wetlands that are ephemeral, temporary or seasonal in nature are not permanent bodies of water.
  • Undefined Stream Channels
    Water features that do not have a definable bed or channel are not owned by the Province.

The Ordinary High Water Mark and the Legal Bank of a Body of Water

The line that separates the Crown-owned bed and shore of a body of water from the adjacent private land is called the legal bank. Its location is synonymous with what is commonly known as the "Ordinary High Water Mark (OHWM)". Section 17 of the Surveys Act clearly defines bed and shore of a body of water and its bank.

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The bank is a natural boundary formed by the action of water for a long enough time to leave its signature on the ground. Unless coincidental, it is not a historic high water mark, a flood line, or the current waterline.

It is also a boundary that can move over time. Rivers continuously shift with changes in flow, as do lake levels when changes in climate occur (e.g., long-term drought). A plan of survey showing the boundary of a river or lake in 1905 may not be in the same location if surveyed today.

A review of previous surveys and aerial photographs over time and a visual inspection of the vegetation and soil characteristics of a particular location may be required to verify the location of a natural boundary.

It is the responsibility of a landowner to know where his property boundaries are. If the current location of a property boundary next to a water body needs to be established, the services of an active Alberta Land Surveyor should be sought.

Updated Plan Submission Requirements for Changes in Natural Boundaries

The purpose of this document is to assist primarily Alberta Land Surveyors regarding updated plan submission requirements for changes in natural boundaries in addition to internal Government of Alberta staff and other stakeholders.

This will improve the ability of the Division to adjudicate plans that reflect changes in natural boundaries.

Public Access to Public Bodies of Water

Access to the beds and shores of a river, stream, lake or other bodies of water is subject to legal access. For example, fishermen can access a stream through public roads, road allowances (developed or undeveloped), and commonly at bridge locations.

If uplands must be crossed to reach a Crown-owned body of water or watercourse, the permission of a private landowner or Crown land leaseholder should be sought. Where the adjoining land is public land under lease, recreational users can obtain access information from the department's Recreational Access website at:

The beds and shores of a river or stream that are bounded by private land may generally be traversed below the ordinary high water mark without fear of trespass.

At all times, users of beds and shores should "Use Respect" of the land. Be mindful of fence lines and gates that are required to keep livestock confined.

 

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Updated: Nov 28, 2017