Is It illegal to Connect a River to the Ocean?

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The question of whether it’s legal to connect a river to the ocean in the United States taps into a complex net of environmental, state, and federal regulations. Such an action can have significant ecological impacts and is subject to rigorous legal scrutiny. This article seeks to shed light on the legalities involved in altering natural waterways.

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Regulation of Waterways in the United States

In the U.S., altering any natural watercourse, including connecting a river to the ocean, is regulated under a variety of laws. These laws are designed to protect water resources, ecosystems, and the rights of those who use them.

The Clean Water Act (CWA) is a primary federal law governing water pollution, which can include the redirection of water bodies:

“The discharge of any pollutant by any person shall be unlawful, except as in compliance with sections 301, 302, 306, 307, 318, 402, and 404 of this Act.” — Clean Water Act, 33 U.S.C. § 1311(a)

Under the CWA, “discharge of any pollutant” can be broadly interpreted to include the act of connecting a river to the ocean if it results in the addition of pollutants to navigable waters.

Permits and Environmental Impact Assessments

Any project that involves connecting a river to the ocean typically requires an environmental impact assessment (EIA) and the acquisition of permits from federal and state agencies. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, under Section 404 of the CWA, evaluates permit applications for such activities:

“The Secretary may issue permits, after notice and opportunity for public hearings for the discharge of dredged or fill material into the navigable waters at specified disposal sites.” — Clean Water Act, 33 U.S.C. § 1344

This section indicates that altering a watercourse would require a thorough review and public input before any permit is granted.

State and Local Regulations

In addition to federal laws, state and local regulations play a crucial role. States have their own environmental protection laws that may impose further restrictions or require additional permits. For instance, California’s Coastal Act is designed to protect coastal resources and would likely be applicable to any efforts to connect a river to the ocean within the state.

Conducting such watercourse alterations without proper authorization can lead to serious legal consequences, including but not limited to civil penalties, criminal charges, and mandatory restoration of the altered landscapes.


The act of connecting a river to the ocean is not inherently illegal in the United States, but it is heavily regulated. The legal process involves an EIA, federal and state permits, and adherence to a multitude of environmental laws. Unauthorized alterations to watercourses can carry significant legal repercussions.

For further information on waterway regulations and permits, consult the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and relevant state environmental agencies.


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