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Thursday, February 23, 2006

King and Fairfax on Land Acquisition and Water Rights

Mary Ann King and Sally K. Fairfax (UC Berkeley) have posted Beyond Bucks and Acres: Land Acquisition and Water on SSRN.  Here's the abstract:

This Article will use historical experience and current practice to do three things. First, we chronicle early acquisitions’ tendency to overlook water. Second, we will offer a precise account of the confusion that can arise from combining conservation easements and water as property, most particularly in the western United States. Finally, we look at some tools that might minimize the confusion.

In Part II we first use a brief history of land acquisitions - from Niagara Falls in the 1880s to the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act of 1965 - to establish the context in which land-acquiring conservationists have long overlooked water. Perhaps the fact that land acquisition as a conservation tool, both full-fee and conservation-easement-based, first took hold in the eastern United States, where riparian doctrine prevails, explains the rather off-hand approach to water in these early acquisitions, what we call the “riparian mindset.” We also note some basic constraints on “just buying it” associated with these historic acquisitions of land-in-fee.

We briefly put water aside in Part III to introduce land trusts and conservation easements. First, we discuss state statutes that adjusted the common law of servitudes to accommodate conservation easements. Then we point to issues that would arise in any modern conservation easement, issues that intensify the concerns we raise regarding acquisition of land-in-fee.

In Part IV, the heart of our discussion, we ask what happens if conservation easements are used when water is a primary or necessary element of the conservation benefit. We begin by examining the easiest case: municipal and land trust programs that use conservation easements to protect water quality. In these programs, the basic features of the conservation easement are relatively unaltered by its connection to water, and problems seem no more onerous than with most other conservation easements.

We address the harder issue of water quantity by examining experiences using less-than-fee interests to restrict water rights. Depression era flowage and post-World War II wetland easements acquired by the Bureau of Biological Survey (BBS) and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) are instructive. The contemporary use of conservation easements that address water quality by restricting water rights is more problematic, particularly when the federal government’s enormous advantages in litigation are taken into account.

Part V offers some starting points for future discussion. We look at water trusts’ experience trying to integrate instream values and water rights into transactions. We then briefly discuss a recent Colorado statute aimed at strengthening conservation easements as a tool for protecting water on eased lands. We conclude that conservation easements that protect water quality by controlling land use are not obviously more vexed than the familiar conservation easement protecting open space, habitat, or historic sites. In fact, all of these goals frequently overlap handily. Trying to use conservation easements to address issues involving water rights - water as property - is more complicated. When easements attempt to tie water to land, particularly in ways that are not fully supported by state water, property, and easement law, the results can be disappointing. If the energetic - and still rapidly growing - land trust community is to play a positive role in water-related or water-dependent resource protection, practitioners must overcome the riparian mindset and directly address the interplay between land and water law. We conclude that addressing water quantity goals with conservation easements is both complex and risky. But conservation easements are the current tool of choice for good reason, and not using them at this point in history may leave even worse problems. The task remains to choose tools that effectively integrate land and water conservation.

Ben Barros

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