Key aspects of environmental management exist within a legislative framework. The Rivers and Foreshores Improvement Act 1948 (NSW) and several Regional Environmental Plans created under the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 (NSW) make reference to 'the top of the bank' for defining areas of protected land adjacent to rivers, within which development consent may be required. It is an arbitrary term and its use within the Rivers and Foreshores Improvement Act 1948 (NSW) leads to confusion. This paper examines the range of definitions of 'the top of the bank' in respect of natural watercourses and aims to provide a more lucid and effective definition that will clarify existing ambiguities in legal interpretation. The paper examines the historical origins of the phrase 'top of the bank', finding that stereotyped Eurocentric views of what a river 'should look like' have impaired the legal definition for Australian rivers, thereby influencing common law and the development of statutory definitions. Judicial applications of the phrase 'top of the bank' are examined from a geomorphological perspective, demonstrating the misconceptions of the term in a legal context. The paper identifies the existence of widespread support for the need to protect land adjacent to rivers in the interests of environmental, economic and social sustainability. It concludes by calling for legislative reform that is both tailored to the individual site and consistent with overarching goals at the catchment scale.