Ownership of beds and shores

Crown ownership

In Alberta, the province owns most of the beds and shores of naturally occurring lakes, rivers and streams. It also owns most of the beds and shores of wetlands if they are permanent and naturally occurring bodies of water. Section 3 of the Public Lands Act outlines the legal aspect of this ownership.

The ownership of the beds and shores of a body of water is not always obvious. It may require historical research to verify. Few land titles in Alberta mention the ownership of beds and shores as water bodies by law, are already reserved.

Exceptions to Crown ownership

Former HBC lands

Before Canada’s Confederation, the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) was an English fur trading company. King Charles II of England granted ownership of what was then known as Rupert’s Land to the HBC. This area included what is now known as the province of Alberta.

In 1870 HBC surrendered its lands to the Dominion of Canada, with conditions. This included the retention of the following lands:

  • HBC posts
  • a block of land adjoining each post
  • a grant of land in each surveyed township set out for settlement

HBC retained ownership of:

  1. All lands south of the North Saskatchewan River within all of Section 8 and ¾ of Section 26 (except the northeast quarter) in every township as surveyed.
  2. All of Sections 26 and 8 in every surveyed township divisible by 5.

The HBC was able to sell these lands without any reservations on title and passed the ownership of water body beds and shores onto title holders.

Grant/title to bed and shore

The description of a land grant and subsequent titles may specifically include the beds and shores of a body of water.

Federal lands

Beds and shores are owned by Canada on federal lands within:

  • national parks
  • military reserves
  • Indian reservations
  • surrendered Indian reserves

Court-defined rights

Rights to the beds and shores may be defined by a court of law.

Non-permanent wetlands

In Alberta’s settled areas, naturally occurring wetlands that are temporary or seasonal in nature are not permanent bodies of water.

Undefined stream channels

Water features that do not have a definable bed or channel are not owned by the Province.

Legal bank

Ordinary high water mark

The legal bank in Alberta is the line separating the Crown-owned bed and shore from the adjoining upland. This is also known as the ordinary high water mark. See Section 17 of the Surveys Act for a definition of bed and shore of a body of water and its bank.

Natural boundary

The bank is a natural boundary formed by the action of water over time.

Unless coincidental, it is not a historic high water mark, flood line or current waterline.

Change in natural boundaries over time

The bank of a water body is a boundary that can move over time. Rivers continuously shift with changes in flow. Lake levels vary when changes in climate occur, such as long-term drought. The surveyed boundary of a river or lake in 1905 may not be in the same location if surveyed today.

Verifying the location of a natural boundary may require:

  • a review of previous surveys and aerial photographs
  • a visual inspection of the vegetation and soil characteristics

It is up to landowners to know where their property boundaries are. To locate the position of a natural boundary as a property boundary next to a water body, contact an Alberta Land Surveyor.

To change a land title to reflect a change in a natural boundary, see: Updated Plan Submission Requirements for Changes in Natural Boundaries.

Public access

The public can access the beds and shores of public water bodies by:

  • public roads
  • road allowances (developed or undeveloped)
  • bridge locations

Crossing public land

Uplands may have to be crossed to reach a Crown-owned water body or watercourse. In these cases, permission from the landowner or Crown land leaseholder should be obtained.

It is not trespassing to travel below the ordinary high water mark of rivers and streams bounded by private land.

For information on recreational users accessing public land under lease see: Recreation on agricultural public land.

Users of beds and shores should always respect the land. Be mindful of fence lines and gates that keep livestock confined.