Navigable Waters

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Navigable Waters

Waters that provide a channel for commerce and transportation of people and goods.

Under U.S. law, bodies of water are distinguished according to their use. The distinction is particularly important in the case of so-called navigable waters, which are used for business or transportation. Jurisdiction over navigable waters belongs to the federal government rather than states or municipalities. The federal government can determine how the waters are used, by whom, and under what conditions. It also has the power to alter the waters, such as by dredging or building dams. Generally a state or private property owner who is inconvenienced by such work has no remedy against the federal government unless state or private property itself is taken; if such property is taken, the laws of Eminent Domain would apply, which may lead to compensation for the landowner.

The basis for federal jurisdiction over navigable waters lies in the U.S. Constitution. Since the early nineteenth century, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that the Commerce Clause (Article 1, Section 8) gives the federal government extensive authority to regulate interstate commerce. This view originated in 1824 in the landmark case of gibbons v. ogden, 22 U.S. (9 Wheat.) 1, 6 L. Ed. 23. In Gibbons, the Court was faced with deciding whether to give precedence to a state or federal law for the licensing of vessels. It ruled that navigation of vessels in and out of the ports of the nation is a form of interstate commerce and thus federal law must take precedence. This decision led to the contemporary exercise of broad federal power over navigable waters, and in countless other areas of interstate commerce.

In practical terms federal regulation of navigable waters takes many forms. One area of this regulation covers matters of transportation and commerce: for example, rules governing the licensing of ships and the dumping of waste. A second area applies to the alteration of the navigable waters, which is strictly controlled by federal law. The Rivers and Harbors Appropriation Act of 1899 forbids building any unauthorized obstruction to the nation's navigable waters and gives enforcement powers to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. A third area of regulation involves Workers' Compensation claims. The concept of navigable waters is important in claims made under the Longshore and Harbor Workers' Compensation Act of 1988 (33 U.S.C.A. §§ 901–950). The act provides that employers are liable for injuries to sailors that occur upon navigable waters of the United States.

The vast body of federal regulation concerning navigable waters frequently gives rise to litigation, and in many cases the courts have the difficult job of determining whether particular bodies of water are navigable (and thus subject to the law or regulation in question). Lakes and rivers are generally considered navigable waters, but smaller bodies of water may also be navigable. Attempting to address years of problematic litigation, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1979 created four tests for determining what constitutes navigable waters. Established in Kaiser Aetna v. United States, 444 U.S. 164, 100 S. Ct. 383, 62 L. Ed. 2d 332, the tests ask whether the body of water (1) is subject to the ebb and flow of the tide, (2) connects with a continuous interstate waterway, (3) has navigable capacity, and (4) is actually navigable. Using these tests, courts have held that bodies of water much smaller than lakes and rivers also constitute navigable waters. Even shallow streams that are traversable only by canoe have met the test.

Further readings

"Annotated Federal Statutes of Limitation: Title 33—Navigation and Navigable Waters." 1995. Southwestern University Law Review 24 (winter).

Arnold, Alvin L. 1993. "Navigable Waters: Four Tests to Determine Navigability." Real Estate Law Report 22 (January).

Kullman, Aimee P. 1994. "Expanding the Scope of 'Navigable Waters' under the LHWCA." Tulane Maritime Law Journal 19 (winter).


Admiralty and Maritime Law; Pilot; Riparian Rights; Water Rights.

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