People choose to live near streams for a variety of reasons: agriculture and ranching uses, recreational uses like fishing or wading, having natural scenery in their backyard or feeling a closer connection to nature. While living along a stream provides these unique experiences in a special setting, it also exposes the owners to some unique risks, considerations and concerns. As a streamside landowner, you will want to have a clear understanding of topics that need to be considered differently when along a stream, as opposed to properties without streams or rivers.

Living along a stream, portions of your property are probably within the floodplain and/or floodway. These areas are legally defined by FEMA and they are tied into the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). The NFIP offers affordable insurance for properties within NFIP-participating communities. Most, if not all of the areas within the four watersheds covered in this Handbook (Lefthand, Big Thompson, Little Thompson and Saint Vrain), are in NFIP-participating communities. In addition to these four watersheds, there are over 80 watershed coalitions in the State of Colorado. Find a full directory on the Colorado Watershed Assembly website.

Because most homeowners insurance policies do not cover flood damage, flood insurance can be a valuable tool for streamside properties. You can find out more about the differences between a floodplain and a floodway, as well as how to identify them on your property, in the ‘Flood Risk Management‘ section of Chapter 2.

Find out more about the NFIP:
Look up communities that participate in the NFIP

Watch videos on how floodplains work at the LWOG YouTube Channel!

Did You Know?

When your property line lies at the center of a stream, it can legally change as the stream moves gradually, but not in the case of a large flood event.

Another item to consider is how the limits of your property relate to the stream. Historically, property boundaries are tied to landmarks or easily visible features. As a result, many properties along streams use the actual stream to define the property boundary. Although this seems straightforward, there are a couple of details that you should be aware of. First, landowners in Colorado typically own the land under the stream, but not the stream itself. This means that while you may own the land to the middle of the stream (or on both sides of the stream), you do not own the actual water or the fish within them. Additionally, you are not allowed to divert water off of the stream onto your property. Not only can this have negative impacts on upstream and downstream properties, but it also impacts water rights by removing water that legally belongs to someone else.

The next thing to keep in mind with your streamside property is that waterways are a regulated natural amenity. Certain construction activities need to be properly designed and permitted when they are within the stream or if they impact particular elements such as wetlands or floodplains. This is discussed in more detail in the ‘Permitting Requirements’ [page 121] section of Chapter 3, but a general guide is that if your project will be within the stream channel or will impact wetlands, it is likely that the project will require a permit. If the project will modify the floodplain or floodway, it will also require permitting and engineering. Some of these permits can be applied for by the landowner, while others will require outside assistance. If you are unsure about if your project will require a permit, you can contact your local watershed coalition and/or the appropriate local, state or federal agency. Contact information for these agencies is provided in the above mentioned Permitting Requirements section.

Waterway | wa•ter•way | noun

A river, canal, or other body of water serving as a route or way of travel or transport.
Dictionary.com, n.d.

Although many legal documents (such as the Clean Water Act) reference ‘navigable’ waterways, they also cover non-navigable tributaries that feed into navigable waterways. This means that small streams and creeks that feed into larger rivers are covered/regulated by the Clean Water Act. Therefore, certain activities within them will require permits prior to beginning work.

These regulations are put in place to not only protect the stream system, but also to protect all of the property owners that live along the stream. Small changes on one property can result in greater impacts to the neighboring properties and the overall watershed. Large changes can have even greater impacts on the entire stream system. As a landowner, it is important to recognize these larger connections when considering projects or improvements on your property. This is also important when evaluating the cause of changes on your property. Using this knowledge, you can work with adjacent and nearby landowners to develop a more sustainable stream for yourself and your community.

This stretch of the Big Thompson River was straightened and lined with large boulders. While this isn’t an ideal solution, it is sometimes necessary in tight mountain canyons.

Because this type of project will increase the speed/velocity of the river flows, it must be properly engineered to avoid causing damage upstream and downstream of the project area.

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