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American Whitewater

Puerto Rico Navigability Report


Pursuant to the 1976 Puerto Rico Law of Waters, the most recent law regulating rainwater, rivers, brooks and underground waters, all waters and bodies of water of Puerto Rico are the property and wealth of the people of Puerto Rico. Their use, utilization and development are subject to the provision of the Law of Waters and of the regulations prescribed thereunder.1) Generally, there are no restrictions, under the Law of Waters or related regulations, on the public access and use of streams for recreational purposes.

State Test of Navigability

There is no established test used in Puerto Rico to determine navigability nor is there a requirement of commercial use or recreational use of a body of water to demonstrate navigability. Courts in Puerto Rico have applied the rule that all waters within the ebb and flow of the tide are considered navigable waters.2) In a 1976 case, the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico stated that shallow waters, where houses could be built on stilts in the water, were not navigable waters. 3)

The Navigation and Aquatic Safety Law of December 21, 2000, and Regulations for the Registry, Navigation and Aquatic Safety issued by the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources on March 30, 2005, define “navigable waters” as navigable waters under the control and dominion of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. Navigable waters also include those waters extending from the coastline of Puerto Rico and the adjacent islands seaward to a distance of three maritime leagues.4) The territorial seas surrounding Puerto Rico and its outlying islands are “navigable waters.” In 1980, Congress amended the Federal Relations Act to give the government of Puerto Rico all right, title and interest in and to and jurisdiction and authority over the submerged lands underlying the harbor areas and navigable streams and bodies of water in and around the island of Puerto Rico and the adjacent islands and waters, and the natural resources underlying such submerged lands and waters, including proprietary rights of ownership, and the rights to management, administration, leasing, use and development of such natural resources and submerged lands beneath such waters.5) The submerged lands transferred to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico by the United States are of public domain - existing rights of possible third-interested parties safeguarded - notwithstanding dissenting opinion of the Department of Natural Resources.6)

While the original Puerto Rico Law of Waters, of March 12, 1903, 12 L.P.R.A. §§ 134-146, provided for the use of rivers for navigation and the floating of logs and rafts, that law has been repealed and the new Law of Waters does not contain a similar or equivalent provision.

The following are public or of public ownership:7) (1) waters which rise continuously or intermittently on lands of public ownership; (2) continuous or intermittent waters of waters of springs and creeks which run through natural channels; and (3) rivers. The beds of creeks belong to the owners of the estates they cross.8) Beds or channels of creeks that do not cross estates or otherwise do not belong to the owners of the estates they cross, are of public ownership, as are the natural beds or channels of rivers to the extent covered by the waters thereof during their highest ordinary rise.9) The right to take advantage indefinitely of the waters of springs and streams is acquired by the owners of the land under the body of water, and if applicable, of the adjacent lands when they have used the stream or creek without interruption for a period of 20 years.10) The private ownership of channels of streams of pluvial waters does not carry with it the authority to do or construct any works which may cause a deviation of the water from its natural course.11) Similarly, the fact that a person owns the land on both sides of a brook does not entitle him to erect any structure - a stone wall on the brook's bed - which may cause a deviation of the waters of that stream from their natural course, to the prejudice of another person.12)

Extent of Public Rights in Navigable and Non‑Navigable Rivers13)

Puerto Rico has many relatively short rivers and streams. Out of 1,200 bodies of water in Puerto Rico, only 50 are classified as rivers. There are around 5,400 stream and river miles. According to some studies, ten percent of the river miles support designated uses while twenty-one percent are impaired for one or more designated uses.

Some of the rivers are dammed for hydroelectric power and thus have small lakes along their courses. One such body of water is Lago de Yauco, on the Yauco River. The longest river is the Grand de Arecibo, which flows to the northern coast. Other rivers include the Grand de Añasco, Bayamón, Cibuco, Culebrinas, and La Plata. Rivers in Puerto Rico are non‑navigable, except close to the coastline, and none of the rivers are navigable by large vessels.

Rivers are public and of public ownership. The owners of the margins of rivers are obliged to permit fishermen to take out and spread their nets thereon, and to deposit temporarily the product of the catch, without trespassing upon the estate nor going beyond three meters from the edge of the river unless the topography of the ground should require a greater width to be fixed in any case.14)


Anything which is injurious to health, indecent, or offensive to the senses, or an obstruction to free use of property so as to interfere with the comfortable enjoyment of life or property, or that is a nuisance to the well being of a neighborhood, or to a large number of persons or that illegally obstructs free flow traffic in the usual manner by a lake, river, bay, stream channel or navigable basin constitutes a nuisance and the subject of an action.15) Also, boats and ships cannot navigate or otherwise operate in areas reserved for bathers or areas for the protection of natural and environmental resources. Vessels of more than thirty horsepower cannot operate in lakes and lagoons.

Refer/link to any additional informational resources - For additional information, contact the: Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources ‑ http://www.gobiemo.pr/dma__; Puerto Rico Department of Transportation and Public Acts ‑ http://www.dtop.gov.pr__; Puerto Rico Environmental Quality Board ‑ http://www.gobierno.pr/JCA/Inicio/__; http://www.riverfacts.com/states/pr.html.

1) 12 L.P.R.A. § 1115c.
2) Isla Nena Air Servs., Inc. v. Cessna Aircraft Co., 380 F. Supp. 2d 74 (D.P.R. 2005).
3) Asociacion de Duenos de Casas Veraniegas de la Parguera v. Hon. Comision de Servicio Publico de Puerto Rico, 105 D.P.R. 219, 1975 WL 40112 (P.R. 1976
4) See 48 U.S.C. §§ 747-749.
5) Id.
6) 1981 Opinion of the Puerto Rico Secretary of Justice No. 2.
7) 12 L.P.R.A. § 521.
8) 12 L.P.R.A. § 612.
9) 12 L.P.R.A. § 613.
10) Article 8 of the Law of Waters of March 12, 1903.
11) Law of Waters Article 31. 12 L.P.R.A. § 604.
12) Marin v. Herrera, 64 P.R.R. 275 (1944).
13) For more information on Puerto Rico’s rivers, go to http://www/linktopr.com/rios.html.
14) 12 L.P.R.A. § 615.
15) Hernández v. Esso Standard Oil Co., 429 F. Supp. 2d 469, *471-472 (D.Puerto Rico,2006).