Accretion, Avulsion & Reliction: Definition & Effects

Instructor: Shawn Grimsley
Changes in a body of water can affect your property. In this lesson, you'll learn about accretion, avulsion and reliction and how each can affect a parcel of property.

Water Affects Real Property Rights

Sometimes the natural effects of water upon land can change the nature and extent of the land in ways that may affect your real property rights. Three important ways that water can change the landscape and affect your real property are accretion, avulsion and reliction. Let's take a look.

Accretion

In some respects, water is like a living organism because it moves and affects the environment around it. If you were to closely monitor the bank of a river or the shoreline of a lake or ocean over a long period of time, you would eventually realize that the water was depositing soil on the shoreline or bank. This natural, slow and almost imperceptible deposit of soil by the water is known as accretion. Land formed by accretion is generally recognized to be owned by the owner of the bank or shoreline upon which the accretion occurs. Keep in mind, however, that accretion does not destroy an existing right of way, which is the legal right to travel along property owned by another person.

Avulsion

If you have ever watched a river during a major storm or flood, you probably have seen a bit of avulsion. Avulsion is a sudden and perceptible change in the land brought about by water. Avulsion may result in the addition or removal of land from a bank or shoreline. Let's look at an example.

Anne owns a parcel of land along a bank of a river and a violent storm washes away Anne's bank and deposits much of the soil a mile downstream onto Tim's riverbank. The sudden and perceptible removal of Anne's soil onto Tim's riverbank is an incidence of avulsion. The law generally provides that soil removed by avulsion remains the property of the original owner. Of course, Anne would have to go through the time and expense of reclaiming the soil.

Sometimes avulsion results in a relatively permanent change in the course of a river or stream. This may become important if the river or stream demarcates the boundary between two property owners. Let's look at another example.

Let's say that Jack owns property on the west side of the stream and Jill owns the property directly across Jack on the east side of the stream. The stream acts as the boundary between Jack and Jill's properties. Now let's say that violent storms and flooding have shifted the stream two feet to the east. If the stream were the boundary, it would appear that Jack has gained some land and Jill has lost some. Fortunately for Jill, the law generally holds that she retains the property she owned before since the shift in the course of the stream was due to avulsion.

Let's summarize the differences between accretion and avulsion. Accretion occurs slowly and is imperceptible, while avulsion happens rapidly and perceptibly. The property owner gains ownership of land added to his shore or bank through accretion. However, an owner that loses land to avulsion generally has a right to reclaim it. A shift in a watercourse that serves as a boundary between two parcels of land does not generally change the legal boundary of the parcels if the shift is a result of avulsion. However, it's always important to check your specific state law regarding all of these issues.

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