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Who owns the inland lakes?

boats and people in Torch lake
Flickr user Jen van Kaam

Michigan is known for the Great Lakes, but according to the Department of Natural Resources, there are over 11,000 inland lakes in the state.

In fact, the Michigan Historical Society says, no matter where you go in our state you’re within six miles of an inland lake.

But the question of who owns the rights to these inland lakes has been known to cause disputes.

While the Great Lakes and rivers have clear rules governing public access, the use of inland lakes may not be quite as open, according to Wayne State Law School Associate Professor and water law expert Noah Hall.

Hall says the public can use the lake for fishing, boating, recreation, and navigation only if there is a public access point to reach the surface water. This means many inland lakes that are surrounded by private ownership or aren't connected to a navigational stream aren't open to the public.

But Hall doesn't think asking yourself how you're allowed to use a lake should be your first question.

Instead you should ask yourself, "How can I enjoy it and how can I leave it better than I found it?"

This means cleaning your boat between uses in order to prevent the spread of invasive species. Hall also advocates for staying mindful of the fact that you're using a shared space.

While the state owns the bottomlands of the Great Lakes, inland lake property owners own the bottomlands of their lake. This ownership is divided by creating a center point of the lake, and drawing pie-shaped pieces that coincide with the property owned.

Property owners have the right to wharf out, meaning they can place a dock in front of their property, but, like many water rules, Hall says "that right is a reasonable right."

While owners have the right to wharf out, boaters also have the right to navigate the water and these rights have to be reasonably balanced.

In the last decade, Hall says lakefront property owners have grown together to become collective stewards of the water. According to Hall, this often is seen in lake associations creating more guidelines to protect lakes from threats such as invasive species and pollutants.

"And I don't think they're doing it just to protect their investments, I think they're doing it because they realize that a lake and a water body is something special and owning property along it gives you both an obligation as well as some rights," Hall says.

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