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Reliction is a term every property owner should know. Here’s what it means.

What is reliction?

Reliction is the increase in land that occurs when a river or the ocean permanently withdraws from the site. The key point is that of permanency; reliction does not refer to what happens in a drought because when normal weather patterns return, the land will be covered with water again.

Deeper definition

The topography of land bounded by rivers, lakes, and the ocean constantly changes as land erodes in one place and soil is deposited elsewhere. Usually this is a gradual process, and the consequence is that some areas lose land and others gain it. The natural recession of water in some parts of the country may also be due to climactic and geographical changes. When this process happens in a gradual manner over a number of years, it can be described in one of two ways:

  • Reliction is when land is exposed due to a natural process that results in the withdrawal of water, such as when a river channel dries up.
  • Accretion occurs when soil and gravel are deposited on a river bank, resulting in a gradual increase in a land area through natural means.

When there is a sudden change in the course of a river caused by a catastrophic event such as a heavy storm, flood, or natural disaster, this is called avulsion. The legal consequences on physical boundary changes due to avulsion are different from reliction and accretion:

  • When reliction and accretion occur, the landowner benefiting owns the land and the landowner who loses land can do nothing.
  • With avulsion the legal boundaries do not change, and the landowner losing land has a right to reclaim the land lost if this is possible.

Reliction example

Charles and Donald are two farmers sharing a common border demarcated by a meandering stream. In spring, when the snows melt, it flows quite rapidly and has gradually formed a large bow that’s eating into Donald’s land. Over several years, the river course has moved 25 feet into Donald’s property over a length of 95 feet. Charles and Donald are good neighbors and consult an attorney to establish who owns the additional land on Charles’ side. The attorney explains the principal of reliction, and they agree that Charles now owns the new land.

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