Soil & Water Conservation District


As a Soil & Water Conservation District, Knox SWCD gets many calls and inquiries relating to drainage, water rights, and responsibilities of landowners when it comes to water runoff. This section is intended to provide information to landowners to assist in your understanding of Ohio’s Drainage Laws per the Ohio Revised Code. This information is not intended to be a substitution for professional legal guidance. Credit for the content on this page belongs to Morrow Soil & Water Conservation District.

Ohio Drainage Law legally addresses drainage rights and runoff issues. The “reasonable use” doctrine frequently applied by the Ohio Supreme Court permits broad latitude in the interpretation of individual rights as they pertain to drainage. It states “A possessor of land is not unqualifiedly privileged to deal with surface water as he pleases, nor is he absolutely prohibited from interfering with the natural flow of surface waters to the detriment of others. Each possessor is legally privileged to make a reasonable use of his/her land, even though the flow of surface waters is altered thereby and causes some harm to others. He/she incurs liability only when his/her harmful interference with flow of the surface water is unreasonable.”
Currently the Ohio Drainage Laws are receiving important and much needed updates. This article from Morning Ag Clips highlights some of those updates that are taking place.
The laws are not easily summarized. However, most people who work in the area of drainage or water management would agree to the following:
  • Landowners are entitled to reasonable use of the water that flows across their land as long as it is returned to its natural water course. This includes ponding water behind a dam for personal use or making drainage improvements to protect structures.
  • Landowners are generally required to accept the water that flows onto their property in a natural water course, so long as no additional water from another watershed has been added to such flow; subsurface drainage that has been installed for more than 21 years is considered a natural water course.
  • Landowners are generally obligated to outlet a natural water course onto their downstream neighbor at the same point the water left the property prior to any development on the site. Changing the flow of water (i.e. volume, direction, or velocity) in a matter that causes damage to an upstream neighbor may result in legal liabilities for damages.
  • At this time, the authority to issue orders or resolve conflicts over water rights or drainage problems between neighbors lies with the common pleas court. Serious disputes between landowners are often settled in court on a case by case basis. The exception may be the few cities which have drainage or storm water ordinances.
  • The Knox Soil & Water Conservation District can provide assistance to landowners who voluntarily wish to improve drainage on their own property. Knox SWCD will not mediate conflicts between neighboring landowners.
  • One of the most common concerns we hear can be summarized: “My neighbor has modified their property, now water (either upstream or downstream) is causing issues for me. What can be done?”
    Since most drainage complaints involve private property, they are managed as a civil matter. No county or township agency, including the Knox SWCD, has the authority to maintain and/or improve the flow of stormwater across private property. In most cases, the landowner must initiate the action to resolve the drainage dispute or make the drainage improvement. To resolve a drainage problem, landowners may:
  • Choose to do nothing and accept the consequences (i.e. continued flooding, flood damage).
  • Work voluntarily with other landowners involved in the drainage problem, and agree to pay the necessary costs and construct improvements.
  • Consult with an attorney to resolve the drainage problem in a court of law where a judge will award damages to address a drainage problem resulting from the negligence of others. The Knox SWCD may offer suggestions on how to resolve the drainage issue, but we do not have the authority to tell individual landowners what to do on their property.
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