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John Moore, who owns property along the James River, helped form a landowner group to take care of Bull Creek.
John Moore, who owns property along the James River, helped form a landowner group to take care of Bull Creek.

When Floating Turns to Fighting

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Living on a lake or stream can be idyllic in the scenic Ozarks, but for some property owners, that proximity also can create tension with recreational boaters, outdoor enthusiasts and campers who want to take advantage of the waterways.

State law does offer some protection – called riparian rights – for owners of property directly adjacent to natural streams and lakes. While the laws clearly state that waterways are open to the public, they also state that people using the waterways cannot come onto the property owners’ land. Riparian rights also address issues tied to water quality, making it illegal, for example, for people to ride all-terrain vehicles through streams unless they are property owners crossing on their own land.

Harry Styron, a Branson-based attorney and regional specialist on waterways laws, said riparian rights only cover natural waterways, and not manmade lakes such as Table Rock, Lake Taneycomo and Lake of the Ozarks, which are governed by entities such as the Corps of Engineers or the federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

“There haven’t been many riparian rights cases in the courts in the past. But as our population continues to grow here in the Ozarks, the conflicts will continue to grow and will find their way into the courts,” Styron said.

About 50 property owners along Bull Creek in Branson formed the Bull Creek Association this summer with a $2,500 grant from the Conservation Federation of Missouri, said John Moore, president of the Ozarks Water Watch Foundation, which organized the association.

“The group was formed so we could put into place good practices that will help take care of the stream,” Moore said. “Part of the landowners’ concerns are riparian rights issues.”
The recreational stream is 10 miles wide and 20 miles long, flowing into the White River at
Lake Taneycomo at Rockaway Beach.

A key concern is that sometimes, having rowdy boaters floating a few feet from a person’s home can quickly turn contentious, said Styron, citing an incident on the Black River last year when some canoers got into a fist fight with nearby landowners.

“There was some frustration that the prosecutor never took the case further,” he said. “That concerns landowners because asking someone to leave your property might get you beat up.”
While Missouri law prohibits the operation of boats while under the influence of alcohol, Styron notes that there’s a longstanding tradition mixing drinking and boating.

“Drinking can raise the possibility of conflict and make it worse,” he said.
“I think that is the biggest concern for landowners in the southwest part of Missouri. People come onto the streams and get off and have parties on other people’s land and leave trash.”

Moore, who owns land along the James River, said landowners along public waterways also are concerned about water runoff, sediment and pollution.

Although trespassing is illegal along the public waterways, Styron said another concern is that law enforcement is sometimes slow to respond, if they are able to respond at all.

That may mean tolerating the trespassers.

“Landowners don’t want to expose themselves to physical harm,” Styron said.
Safety concerns also discourage some landowners from speaking on the record about riparian rights concerns.

One landowner and member of the Bull Creek Association, for example, declined to be interviewed for this story because he felt doing so would make he and his neighbors targets for trespassers. He also declined to disclose names of his neighbors so they could be contacted for this story.

Styron, who blogs about riparian rights at and gives presentations about them, has found growing interest.

“There will always be strangers intruding on private property,” he said. “As long as they stay in the stream they’re lawfully there, but as the population grows and more people are on those streams and come onto the banks, there will be more conflict.”[[In-content Ad]]


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