Avulsion refers to water quickly submerging land or moving land to another location. In most situations under state property law, land moved by avulsion continues to be the property of the owner of where the land originally was located. For example, a major hurricane may cause chunks of land to be dislodged from a person’s land beside a river, and in this case, the person would continue to own the dislodged land. The key aspect of avulsion is its rapid change. This is in contrast with the slow accretion or alluvion of land which is expected to occur when owning land adjacent to water. Change to the land brought about by accretion and alluvion does not stay with the original land owner but benefits wherever the material moves to, unlike avulsion.
Avulsion is the subject of much litigation and increasingly so. Historically, issues arise surrounding whether a change actually constituted avulsion or alluvion or whether different rules should apply involving government owned property. Due to rapid changes in coastlines, wetlands, and rivers caused by rising sea levels and climate changes, many land owners have seen property be submerged or washed away, leaving many unsolved questions regarding the status of ownership given the extreme changes.
To give an example of where this may be a problem, multiple acres of land may become permanently submerged or unusable after a hurricane changes the sea shore line. Afterwards, many individuals may pay for homes located on the now beachfront area, but the government may decide to refill the submerged land in order to preserve the coast. Litigation arises on whether the government committed a taking by removing the property owners’ oceanfront access by filling in the land.
[Last updated in November of 2021 by the Wex Definitions Team]