surface water drainage

Signficant surface water draining across farm field
By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Wednesday, May 18th, 2022

We can count on legal questions about surface water drainage to flow steadily in the Spring, and this year is no exception.  Spring rains can cause drainage changes made on one person’s land to show up as harm on another’s land.  When that happens, is the person who altered the flow of surface water liable for that harm?  Possibly.  Here is a reminder of how Ohio law deals with surface water drainage problems and allocates liability for drainage interferences, followed by guidance on how to deal with a drainage dispute.

Ohio law allows landowners to change surface water drainage

Back in 1980, the Ohio Supreme Court adopted a new rule for resolving surface water disputes in the case of McGlashan v. Spade Rockledge.  Previous Ohio law treated water as a “common enemy” to be pushed onto others, then absolutely prohibited any land changes that would increase surface water drainage for lower landowners.  In McGlashan, the Court replaced these old laws with the “reasonable use rule” that remains the law in Ohio.  The rule states that landowners do have a right to interfere with the natural flow of surface waters on their property, even if those changes are to the detriment of other landowners.  But the right to alter drainage is limited to only those actions that are “reasonable.”

Drainage changes must be “reasonable”

Although it allows drainage changes, the reasonable use doctrine also states that landowners incur liability when their interference with surface water drainage is “unreasonable.”   What does that mean?  The law contains factors that help clarify when an interference is unreasonable, a determination made on a case-by-case basis.  The factors attempt to balance the need for the land use change that altered drainage against the negative impacts that change has on other landowners.  A court will examine four factors to determine whether the drainage change is unreasonable:  the utility of the land use, the gravity of the harm, the practicality of avoiding that harm, and unfairness to other landowners.    For example, if a land use change has low utility but causes drainage harm to other landowners, or the landowner could take measures to prevent unfair harm to others, a court might deem the landowner’s interference with drainage as “unreasonable.”

What to do if a neighbor’s drainage is causing harm?  

The unfortunate reality of the reasonable use doctrine is that it requires litigation, forcing the harmed party to file an action claiming that the neighbor has acted unreasonably.  Before jumping into litigation, other actions might resolve the problem.  An important first step is to understand the physical nature of the problem.  Can the cause of the increased flow be remedied with physical changes?  Is there a simple change that could reduce the interference, or is there need for a larger-scale drainage solution?  Identifying the source of the harm and the magnitude of the drainage need can lead to solutions.  Involving the local soil and water conservation district or a drainage engineer might be necessary. 

Based on the significance of the solutions necessary to eliminate the problem, several options are available:

  • If identified changes would remedy the problem, a talk with a drainage expert or a letter from an attorney explaining the reasonable use doctrine and demanding the changes could encourage the offending landowner to resolve the problem.  If the landowner still refuses to remedy the problem, litigation is the last resort.  The threat of litigation often spurs people into action.
  • Sometimes the issue is one that requires collaboration by multiple landowners.  Identifying a solution and sharing its costs among landowners, based on acreage draining into the area, can be a way to solve the problem.
  • For more substantial drainage problems, a petition for a drainage improvement with the soil and water conservation district or the county engineer might be necessary.  Petitioned drainage improvements involve all landowners in the affected area and are financed through assessments on land within that area.  A visit with those agencies would determine whether a petition improvement is necessary and if so, how to proceed with the petition.
  • For smaller fixes, a landowner always has the option of filing a claim for damages through the small claims court.  The estimated damages or repairs must fall below the $6,000 limit for small claims.  A landowner can make the claim without the assistance of an attorney, and the dispute could be resolved more quickly through this forum.

As the Spring rains continue, keep in mind that the reasonable use doctrine sets a guideline for Ohio landowners:  make only reasonable changes to your surface water drainage and don’t cause an unreasonable drainage problem for your neighbors.  Where changes and interferences are unreasonable and landowners are unwilling to resolve them, the reasonable use doctrine is the last resort that provides the legal remedy for resolving the problem.

For more information on Ohio drainage law, refer to our law bulletin on Surface Water Drainage Rights

By: Ellen Essman, Wednesday, July 22nd, 2020

Since the advent of the Clean Water Act (CWA), states have attempted to address agricultural nutrient pollution through the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination Permit (NPDES) system. But legal challenges have plagued state NPDES permit programs from their beginnings, and litigation has become a common tool for reducing water quality impacts from manure and other agricultural nutrients. States have developed their own water quality laws and policies, and there have been legal challenges to those as well. These legal challenges arise from environmental interests and impacted neighbors and communities and can be pre-emptive or reactionary. Our newest report for the National Agricultural Law Center examines litigation involving agricultural nutrients from 2018 through 2020. 

In the report, the cases are broken down into several categories. We examine what the courts have to say when it comes to NPDES permits for individual farms and whether they are properly issued by states, whether or not the government (state and federal) is following its own laws and regulations when carrying out water pollution policies, the validity of state CAFO General Discharge permits, and whether or not neighboring landowners have redress for potential agricultural runoff. Some of the cases are challenges to state water quality laws, or the issuance of an NPDES permit.  A few other cases directly target agricultural producers.  The report is entitled Agricultural Nutrients and Water Quality: Recent Litigation in the United States, and can be found here

In addition to the paper, we also recently updated part of our nutrient management project on the National Agricultural Law Center’s website.  The project was first published last year, and includes a report and a state chart. The chart tracks which states require nutrient management plans, nutrient application restrictions, and certification and education for nutrient applicators, and can be found here. The chart also provides links to states’ nutrient management laws and regulations.  A few changes and additions have been made to state laws and regulations within the chart.

The USDA’s National Agriculture Library funded our research on these related projects, which we conducted in partnership with the National Agricultural Law Center. 

By: Evin Bachelor, Monday, March 25th, 2019

Depending upon who you talk to and when you talk to them, Ohio is either blessed or cursed as a water rich state.  Droughts certainly occur, but in the past couple of years Ohio farmers have experienced record breaking rainfall both by measures of inches and intensity.  As spring showers bring about a transition from winter to spring, we wanted to take a moment to look at Ohio’s surface water drainage laws.

Ohio courts follow the “reasonable use” doctrine for surface water drainage.  Under this doctrine, a landowner may drain surface water from his or her property in a reasonable manner.  When a landowner’s attempts to drain surface water from his or her property seem to result in harm to the property of another, legal issues may arise.

Courts and juries generally determine whether a landowner acted reasonably by looking at a number of factors, such as: the utility of the drainage, the gravity of the harm, the practicality of avoiding the harm, and whether it is fair to relieve the landowner of liability.  These factors are examined and balanced on a case-by-case basis to determine whether the landowner should be found liable for the harm experienced by another.

Certainly there are ways to resolve a dispute before resorting to a lawsuit.  Landowners may talk with their neighbors to work out an agreeable solution.  Landowners also have the option to work with the county Soil and Water Conservation District or county engineer’s office to file a petition for a drainage improvement project that would address the drainage need.

For more information, check out our law bulletin on Surface Water Drainage Rights in Ohio, which is available HERE.  It explains the “reasonable use” doctrine, describes how reasonableness is determined, and discusses remedies for harm caused by drainage.

By: Peggy Kirk Hall, Wednesday, August 08th, 2018

New law bulletin explains Ohio surface water drainage law

The drainage of surface water is undoubtedly important to agricultural landowners.  A question we often hear is whether someone can interfere with the surface water drainage on someone else’s property.  The answer to this question lies in Ohio’s “reasonable use doctrine,” which establishes guidelines for when a landowner has a legal right to affect the drainage of surface water onto another property.  Our new law bulletin, “Surface Water Drainage Rights,” explains this important legal doctrine.

Here is a quick summary of the bulletin:

  • A landowner does not have an absolute privilege to deal with surface water as he or she pleases but does have a legal right to alter the flow of surface waters from the property.
  • However, a landowner  has a legal duty of “reasonable use” when affecting surface water drainage and can be liable if a harmful interference with the flow of surface water is “unreasonable.”
  • To determine whether land uses and drainage interferences are “reasonable” or “unreasonable,” Ohio courts will examine four important factors:   the utility of the land use or drainage use, the gravity of harm caused to others, the practicality of avoiding the harm, and the fairness of requiring other landowners to bear harm from the drainage interference.
  • A harmed party can seek damages for injuries resulting from an “unreasonable” drainage interference.  Options for pursuing damages include hiring an agricultural attorney to send a “demand letter” or file a negligence claim or using the small claims court for damages that are $6,000 or less.
  • Another way to resolve a drainage interference is to work with the county Soil and Water Conservation District or county engineer’s office to develop a drainage improvement project.  Landowners may use the drainage petition process, which requires all landowners within the area benefitted by drainage improvement project to pay for the project through property assessments.

For a detailed explanation of drainage rights, read the full bulletin here.

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