Municipal Drains

This eReference tool is not a substitute for specialized legal advice. Always consult a lawyer before implementing any drainage changes to your property or operations or considering any legal action.

If your property is part of a municipal drainage system, or you are interested in initiating a municipal drain, you may have a number of questions.

What is a municipal drain?

A municipal drain is a system to move water. It is created pursuant to a bylaw passed by the local municipality. The municipality is responsible for the construction of the drainage system and future maintenance and repair. Costs may be recovered from the property owners in the watershed of the drain.

Municipal drains are identified by municipal bylaw that adopts an engineer's report. These reports contain plans, profiles and specifications defining the location, size and depth of the drain, and how costs are shared among property owners.

Most municipal drains are either ditches or closed systems, such as pipes or tiles buried in the ground. They can also include structures such as dykes or berms, pumping stations, buffer strips, grassed waterways, storm water detention ponds, culverts and bridges. Some creeks and small rivers are now considered to be municipal drains. Municipal drains are primarily located in rural agricultural areas.

What makes municipal drains different from other forms of drainage systems is that they are municipal infrastructure and the municipality is responsible for their management. Municipal drains are authorized through a municipal bylaw passed under the Drainage Act that adopts an engineer's report. The engineer's report contains plans, profiles and specifications that indicate the location, form and depth of the municipal drain.

How do I find out if it is a municipal drain?

For example, there is a watercourse (or buried pipe) on my property or property I want to purchase.

Most municipalities in rural agricultural Ontario employ drainage superintendents, hired by their municipal council to manage municipal drains. Most municipal drains are also shown on the Agricultural Information Atlas website.

However, the official records are with the municipality. Find out the name of your local municipality's drainage superintendent and ask them if you have a municipal drain on your property. If there is no superintendent in your area, ask the municipal clerk.

To find out more information about municipal drains on your property, or for which you are being assessed, request copies of the bylaw and engineer's report from your municipality. (Note: you may have to pay for the photocopies.)

The engineer's report defines how a drain affects your property, including:

  • location of the drain;
  • watershed of the drain;
  • size and shape of the drain;
  • working right-of-way;
  • your share of drainage project costs.

Before purchasing a property, it is recommended that you investigate how municipal drains may affect it. Municipalities have the right to accumulate the cost of maintaining a drain for up to five years or $5,000. That means you may be billed for work occurring before you owned a property.

What does it mean to have a municipal drain on my property?

Municipalities must maintain their municipal drains. If you have a municipal drain on your property, you can expect your municipality to periodically enter your property to perform necessary work.

While the work is being completed, you can expect the working space along the drain to be accessed by maintenance equipment, and the land to be disrupted to some degree. This working space is a form of easement so you will not normally be paid for any damages on this land. After the work is completed, you may be billed for your share of the cost.

What are my responsibilities as a landowner with a municipal drain?

As a landowner, you have a responsibility to pay attention to the drains located on your property. If you notice any problems with the drains located on or near your property, immediately notify the drainage superintendent or the local municipality.

Alongside every municipal drain there is an unregistered working space the municipality has the right to use to maintain or repair the drain. It is recommended that you keep this working space accessible and do not plant trees or build structures in this area. If you obstruct the maintenance equipment, you may have to pay the cost of removing the obstruction.

Don't store materials such as brush, lumber or other material near the drain – as these could float away and block the drain during a storm. Remove debris from any catchbasins on your property. Ongoing preventative work can reduce the possibility of property damage during storms.

The local municipality is responsible for maintaining municipal drains on behalf of the community of landowners involved in a drain. If you want to install a culvert or bridge on an open ditch municipal drain – or if a municipal drain requires maintenance – notify the municipality instead of doing the work yourself. If you do unauthorized work on a drain, and the work results in damages to the drain or other landowners, you could be responsible for paying the cost of repairing the damages.

Although all municipal drains are artificial or "man-made", they eventually flow into lakes, rivers and streams. Do not direct septic system waste, milkhouse wastes, barnyard and manure storage runoff or other pollutants directly to these drains. These practices can be offences under many federal and provincial statutes.

How would I initiate a municipal drain project under the Drainage Act?

You might be considering a municipal drain as a solution to your drainage problem.

To initiate a municipal drain project, submit a petition for drainage using the prescribed form to the clerk of your municipality. To be a valid petition, the petition must be signed by:

  • the majority of property owners in the area that requires drainage, or
  • the property owners that represent at least 60% of the land in the area requiring drainage, or
  • the engineer, road superintendent or person having authority over a road requiring drainage

The "area requiring drainage" is the area within a watershed with a drainage problem or need for drainage outlet – and is not the full watershed.

The petition is a legal document in a form prescribed by the regulations under the Drainage Act. Use the specific petition form available from your municipal office, and ensure the form is properly signed. Properties owned by a partnership must be signed by all partners. Properties owned by a corporation must be signed by the individual with signing authority on behalf of the corporation.

More information on the process is defined in the Drainage Act and summarized in the factsheet Drainage Legislation.

Can the Drainage Act be used to solve drainage problems in urban areas?

Yes, the petition drain process under the Drainage Act was developed for use in rural agricultural areas of Ontario, but it can also be used to resolve drainage problems in urban settings. However, this process may result in a drainage system on your property that becomes municipal infrastructure, and the municipality acquires a form of easement to access the property for future maintenance. The cost of municipal drains is paid by all the properties in the watershed of the drainage system – this could extend far beyond the properties in the immediate area of the drainage problem.

You may want to approach your municipality to review other alternatives to resolve the problem, including these options:

  • approach your municipality about using the Local Improvement Charges regulation (Regulation 586/06) under the Municipal Act to develop a solution to the problem – municipalities can undertake certain works as local improvements, and raise all or part of the required costs from property owners whose lots abut directly on the work.
  • if the problem is caused by the blockage of a rear yard swale, find out if your municipality has a Property Standards Bylaw to address this type of problem.

How do engineers calculate assessments for drainage projects on my property?

Engineers consider a variety of factors in determining how the costs of municipal drains should be shared among property owners. Some of these factors include:

  • The benefit that the drain provides to the land;
  • The amount of land within the watershed of the drainage system;
  • The amount of water contributed by the land (land use and soil type);
  • The distance the land is from the drain.

For more information, check out the factsheet Understanding Drainage Assessment.

How do I appeal a municipal drain decision?

For example, an engineer has prepared a report for a municipal drain project that will affect your property and you are opposed to it.

The authority for developing a municipal drain comes from the Drainage Act, and the process is summarized in the factsheet Drainage Legislation. All affected property owners have an opportunity to be involved in the public consultation process used to develop the municipal drain.

The factsheet Drainage Act Appeals provides a brief description of the appeal bodies under the Drainage Act, and a summary of the specific appeal rights available to property owners. In addition, the Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs Appeal Tribunal has produced a document called Guidelines for Preparing for a Hearing.

How do I initiate a cleanout or maintenance of an existing municipal drain?

Contact your local drainage superintendent if the municipal drain affecting your property requires maintenance – they will investigate and determine what action is required. If your municipality does not employ a drainage superintendent, contact the municipal clerk to arrange the investigation of your problem.

If you've contacted your local municipality and not received any response or action, give them written notice with a letter addressed to council. Indicate in the letter that you are giving official notice under Section 79 of the Drainage Act that maintenance of the drain is required. The municipality could be liable for damages resulting from not performing maintenance or repair work.

My downstream neighbour has blocked the municipal drain. What should I do?

If the municipal drain has been blocked by a property owner, contact your local municipality. The Drainage Act requires municipalities to manage drains and gives municipalities the right to enter private property to remove the blockage. If your neighbour is responsible for the blockage, the municipality may charge them for the cost to remove the blockage.

What if I want to create a wetland on my property?

In order to do this the municipal drain located on my property must be blocked. Am I allowed to do this?

No, you are not allowed to do this yourself. You have the right to request council to make the modification since blockage of an existing municipal drain is a modification to the drain. If accepted, council appoints an engineer to investigate your request and prepare a report. All affected property owners on the drain have the right to appeal any aspect of the project. But if adopted by the bylaw, the modification can be constructed and the control structure becomes part of the drain.

If you are interested in developing wetlands or wildlife ponds on your property, review the Wetlands and Wildlife Ponds infosheet of the Environmental Farm Plan. And a program called Wetland Drain Restoration Project, has been developed by the Ministry of Natural Resources to assist you.

I have identified what looks like a spill in a municipal drain. Who do I call?

Contact your municipality and Ministry of the Environment's Spills Action Centre.

I have identified what looks like a spill in a watercourse. Who do I call?

Contact Ministry of the Environment's Spills Action Centre.

Additional resources

For more information:
Toll Free: 1-877-424-1300